House passes restrictions on eminent domain

Condemned house
The home of Susette Kelo, which was condemned by the state of Connecticut, is shown in June 2005 in New London, Connecticut. Kelo and others in her neighborhood sued over their city's use of eminent domain to take their property for an economic development project. The court ruled against Kelo, prompting legislatures across the country to revise their eminent domain rules.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Dozens of state legislatures across the country have been trying to tighten up eminent domain rules. Lawmakers are reacting to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year that allows cities to seize private property for private business development.

Rep. Jeff Johnson, R-Plymouth, the bill's chief sponsor, says many people were shocked and angered to learn of government's expansive rights to use eminent domain.

Rep. Jeff Johnson
Rep. Jeff Johnson, R-Plymouth, is a candidate for state attorney general. He's also the main sponsor of a bill to restrict the use of eminent domain in Minnesota.
MPR Photo/Laura McCallum

"Are we willing to sacrifice one of the most fundamental rights of our neighbors so we can have a better place to shop? Are we willing to force our neighbors out of their own homes so we can live on their land? My answer to that is no, and I think most of the people of Minnesota are with me on that," Johnson said.

The House bill severely limits the use of eminent domain for economic development purposes. It also makes it harder for government entities to take private land from unwilling sellers for traditional public uses, such as roads, schools or utility lines. If land is acquired, property owners are ensured fair compensation.

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Johnson, who's running for state attorney general, says local government officials would also have a higher burden of proof when identifying land as blighted or contaminated.

"If government wants to take someone's property for economic development, to transfer it to another individual or another private entity for their profit, we believe that ought to be very, very difficult. Not impossible, but very difficult. And we also believe that there ought to be something significantly wrong with the property," said Johnson.

They will go to pristine green fields on the outer rim of the metro area. We will have sprawl with the bill. Our inner cities will decay with this bill.

The bill's tough new standards aren't necessarily tough enough for some lawmakers. Rep. Phil Krinkie, R-Lino Lakes, tried unsuccessfully to add a constitutional amendment to the bill. Krinkie, who's a candidate for Congress in the 6th District, wanted voters to decide this fall whether to prohibit the use of eminent domain for economic development.

"This would give the voters of the state of Minnesota the opportunity to determine what constitutes public use, and that private property cannot be taken to transfer to a public entity for economic development or enhancement of tax revenues," said Krinkie.

Another candidate for higher office argued strongly against the bill. Rep. Keith Ellison, DFL-Minneapolis, who's running for Congress in the 5th District, warned the measure could hurt urban neighborhoods. Ellison says increased costs and legal barriers will drive away many developers.

"They will go to pristine green fields on the outer rim of the metro area. We will have sprawl with the bill. Our inner cities will decay with this bill," argued Ellison. "And we will have people living in the most contaminated, dilapidated parts of the city. And all we need is one holdout, and people will suffer there and it will decline."

Eillison and other opponents also predicted the Legislature will be forced to revisit the issue in the coming years, as problems surface and local governments request exceptions.

A slightly less restrictive eminent domain measure passed overwhelmingly last week in the Minnesota Senate. House and Senate negotiators must now resolve the differences between the two bills.