The sponsors of the bill are hailing it as the most substantive policy change the Legislature has passed this session. It would allow local governments to use the practice known as eminent domain to seize private property only in limited circumstances.
"It should be very, very difficult for government to take somebody's private property," said Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, is the bill's sponsor.
Bakk said many citizens were outraged by last year's U.S. Supreme Court ruling. The high court allowed a Connecticut city agency to seize the property of a homeowner who refused to sell the land for a private development.
"I think the general public just didn't believe the government could come and just take your home, take your business away from you," he said. "I don't think the public thought that that was permitted under the law."
The rights of the property owner now trump the rights of the community.Columbia Heights community development director Bob Streetar
Bakk said his bill would prohibit the use of eminent domain for private economic development, such as strip malls. It would allow eminent domain for public purposes, such as roads and government buildings, and when properties are contaminated or a public nuisance. Bakk said when cities do use eminent domain, the bill would ensure that property owners are fairly compensated.
But some city officials say the bill is an overreaction, and will make public projects more expensive. In the city of Columbia Heights, the bill will likely put a stop to a project that has already cost the city more than $1 million.
Community development director Bob Streetar said the city planned to acquire about five acres of land in the middle of downtown - some of which is contaminated - clean up the land and allow senior housing to be built on it. But one property owner doesn't want to sell, and Streetar said the land the city has acquired so far is now in limbo.
"If you can't assemble property, you can't do a project," he said. "The only way you can assemble property is through the use of eminent domain, you can at least bring people to the table to bargain, and this bill prohibits any of that from happening. The rights of the property owner now trump the rights of the community."
Streetar said cities that lobbied against the bill had a hard time competing with the emotional argument made by supporters, who bought billboards showing a bulldozer poised to plow over a home. He said lawmakers will soon realize they went too far with the bill, and the issue will have to be revisited next year.
Eminent domain reform was one of the top priorities for many lawmakers this session, and the bill's lopsided votes reflect that. The Senate passed the bill by a vote of 56-9, and the House passed it 115-17.
The few "no" votes came from urban lawmakers like Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul. Pappas said the bill will prevent redevelopment in the urban core.
"I think what's going to happen is because it's going to be so impossible to put land together, development will happen outside the city, where there's green space," she said. "And we've talked a lot about the importance of developing in brownfields, not in greenfields. We need to keep the greenfields for parks, for agriculture, for open space."
But Sen. Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen, said the bill doesn't prevent redevelopment, it simply levels the playing field so that property owners and developers can work it out themselves.
"There is still the fair market available," she said. "There's no reason why there aren't willing buyers and willing sellers in these transactions. The cities should not be doing the private redevelopers' work for them through the process of eminent domain, and that's all this bill says."
Gov. Tim Pawlenty supports eminent domain reform and is expected to sign the bill.