March 21, 2006

Eminent Domain Reform: The Senate’s Turn

Carroll Andrew Morse

The Rhode Island Senate Judiciary Committee is taking its turn at considering eminent domain reform bills today. The bills up for consideration are the Governor’s bill (S2408), the Lieutenant Governor’s bill (S2155), the Attorney General’s bill (S2771), and a seventh bill (the details of the first 6 can be found here, here, and here).

The seventh bill is Senate bill 2785, introduced by Senators Marc Cote (D-Woonsocket/North Smithfield), Roger Badeau (D-Cumberland/Woonsocket), and Kevin Breene (R-Charlestown/Exeter/Hopkington/Richmond/West Greenwich). S2785 starts off strong…

Except as provided in this chapter and notwithstanding any other provision of law, the state, any political subdivision of the state, and any other entity with eminent domain authority may not condemn property: (a) For the purpose of private retail, office, commercial, industrial, residential, or economic development; (b) Primarily for the enhancement of tax revenue; or (c) For transfer to a person, nongovernmental entity, public-private partnership, corporation, firm, association or other business entity.
S2785 applies to all properties, not just owner occupied ones. However, the bill then goes on to make a whopping big exception…
The provisions of this chapter shall not be deemed to abrogate or diminish the powers heretofore exercised by local redevelopment agencies, as provided for in chapters 45-31 and 45-32 of the general laws, to undertake redevelopment projects, but just compensation, in all cases, must continue to be first made to the owner.
This is from section 45-32-24 of Rhode Island law, the part of the law "not diminished" by S2785...
Notwithstanding the provisions of any other law, each agency has the right to acquire all or any part of the real property or any estate or interest in it within a project area, by the exercise of the power of eminent domain, whenever it is judged by the agency that the acquisition of the real property or any estate or interest in it is in the public interest and necessary for the public use.
Though the proposed bill may be well intentioned the exception clause seems to create a great deal of ambiguity.

H7151, which provides the strongest protection to the public, is now the only eminent domain bill submitted this session not to be considered by either the House or Senate. So far, no eminent domain bill has considered by both houses of the legislature. If there is a frontrunner amongst the different proposals, it is not yet obvious from the public record.