November 4, 2005

Congress Begins Eminent Domain Reform

Carroll Andrew Morse

If West Warwick, or the local governments with jurisdiction over Rhode Island’s other two Municipal Economic Development Zones in Woonsocket and Central Falls, or any city or town in Rhode Island plan to use eminent domain to increase their tax base, they may soon have a new factor to consider.

Yesterday, the United States House of Representatives passed the Private Property Rights Protection Act of 2005 by an overwhelming 376-38 margin. The act outright forbids Federal use of eminent domain for economic development. It then goes on to limit Federal funding to states, cities, or towns that use eminent domain for economic development...

(a) In General- No State or political subdivision of a State shall exercise its power of eminent domain, or allow the exercise of such power by any person or entity to which such power has been delegated, over property to be used for economic development or over property that is subsequently used for economic development, if that State or political subdivision receives Federal economic development funds during any fiscal year in which it does so.

For the purposes of the law, economic development is defined as

(1) ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT- The term `economic development' means taking private property, without the consent of the owner, and conveying or leasing such property from one private person or entity to another private person or entity for commercial enterprise carried on for profit, or to increase tax revenue, tax base, employment, or general economic health…
Warning: the act then goes on to list a bunch of exceptions to the above.

Congressman James Langevin and Congressman Patrick Kennedy both voted in favor of prohibiting the use of eminent domain for economic development. The bill still needs to be passed by the Senate (where Senator John Cornyn has introduced similar legislation) and signed by the President to become law.

However, rather than relying on the threat of Federal defunding for private property protection, the people of Rhode Island should demand that their state government also pass state-level eminent domain reform. All the legislature needs to do is pass a bill similar to House bill 5242 (which was killed in last year’s session). Or perhaps the people of Rhode Island need to pass eminent domain reform themselves through voter initiative.

Finally, each of Rhode Island's cities and towns should pass local versions of eminent domain reform. The strong version of eminent domain protection proposed by Cranston Mayor Steve Laffey can serve as a model. West Warwick might be the ideal place to start the ball rolling.