Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Just in from Washington

Property Rights Bill Clears the US House of Representatives

Washington-Farm Bureau-supported legislation that would strengthen private property rights was approved last week in the House of Representatives by a margin of 356-65.  

The bill, the Private Property Rights Protection Act of 2013 (H.R. 1944), prohibits states that receive federal economic development funding from exercising eminent domain for private economic development. 

The measure addresses at the federal level the 2005 Kelo v. New London decision.  In the Kelo case, New London, Conn., homeowners sued the city for the right to keep their homes, which the city had seized under eminent domain to let a private developer turn the area into a commercial complex. The Supreme Court on June 23, 2005, ruled 5-4 in favor of New London, allowing local governments to seize private property for economic development.

The ruling heightened farmers' and ranchers' concerns about the susceptibility of their land to an eminent domain taking, explained Ryan Yates, American Farm Bureau Federation property rights specialist.

"The fair market value of farm and ranch land is less than residential or commercial property, making agricultural land less costly and a more appealing target for developers," Yates said.

Still, the issue worries urban residents, too.  Just slightly more than one year after the Supreme Court issued its Kelo decision, lawmakers in nearly all 50 states proposed legislation to strengthen private property rights. While their approaches varied from tightening the definitions of "blight" and "public use" to restrictions on private use, to a moratorium on the use of eminent domain pending a task force report, more than 42 states enacted eminent domain laws or passed ballot initiatives to address various aspects of the court's ruling. 

Under the House bill, introduced by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), any state that uses eminent domain in the name of private economic development would lose all federal economic development funding for two years.  The bill creates a private right of action for any landowner who suffers injury as a result of a violation of any provision of this act.  The bill also prohibits any use of eminent domain for economic development by the federal government.

Congressional action on eminent domain cannot change state law, but it can prevent federal agencies from using eminent domain for private economic development and cut off economic development funding for states that continue the practice, as Sensenbrenner's legislation does.

Last week's House vote is largely symbolic as neither the legislation nor the issue is expected to be taken up in the Senate this year. 

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