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Eminent domain at center of property-rights bill

A bill would have made it clear that communities could not use eminent domain as a way to fill their coffers.

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By Jerry Cornfield
Herald Writer
Published:
OLYMPIA -- Attorney General Rob McKenna wants to make sure cash-strapped communities don't turn to eminent domain as a tool for sowing their local economies.
A bill in the Legislature seeks to make clear that local agencies could not acquire properties through condemnation then turn around and sell them to a commercial developer. Public agencies retain their right to condemn land for public use, said Assistant Attorney General Tim Ford.
But the Attorney General's Office is having a hard time convincing state lawmakers the problem is real and property owners need more protection.
Today, the bill is expected to lapse in a House committee whose Democrat chairman said the attorney general's worry is unwarranted.
"I am unconvinced that there is a problem and the proposed solution would do substantial damage," said Rep. Jaime Pedersen, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
He expressed concern about how it might affect future plans of Sound Transit, which has acquired property for new stations in Seattle through condemnation and would be prohibited under the bill from adding as much as a coffee shop at or near it.
All of this doesn't sit well with Stanwood rancher Craig Johnson, who has testified at legislative hearings on the bill this year.
"I consider eminent domain to be negotiation by shotgun," he said. "I'm not surprised we have politicians that represent us who believe that the government's right to own and control our property precedes our own."
Ford said the legislation is Washington's response to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2005 known as the Kelo decision.
In that case, the high court ruled on a 5-4 vote that a city in Connecticut did not violate the U.S. Constitution when it condemned private property then sold the land for development into a shopping center.
In 2007, McKenna formed the Eminent Domain Task Force to consider potential changes in state law as a result of the Supreme Court ruling. That panel, which held 11 meetings over two years, recommended stricter limits on use of condemnation embodied in the legislation.

"While we haven't found a case identical to Kelo, we found a number of cases that were not right," Ford said.
That's the starting point for Pedersen.
"Convince me that there is a problem," he said. "Fundamentally, I don't think what happened in New London (Conn.) can happen here."
This is the second straight year McKenna failed to get this measure passed -- though he pushed it farther through the process this year.
The Senate passed the bill on a 45-4 vote March 7. A companion bill in the House, sponsored by 24 Democratic and Republican lawmakers, did not fare as well. It received a hearing in Pedersen's committee but no other action.
Sen. Nick Harper, D-Everett, cast one of the dissenting votes. He said no constituents or representatives of the Attorney General's office spoke with him about the bill before the vote.
"Unless I am wrong, case law has created an equitable balance of how that process occurs," he said. "It fairly respects private property rights and balances those with the interests of the public."
Ford said Friday this issue will resurface in 2012.
"We're not giving up," he said. "We're going to fight for this."
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.
Story tags » Construction & PropertyLegislature

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