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State nears limit on eminent domain

| Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2006

A more restrictive eminent domain law may be adopted in Pennsylvania this spring.

Two companion bills in the state House and Senate would limit the ability of government to acquire private property to make way for private development. Such developments still would be permitted, but only if the properties can be classified as "blighted."

Both bills spell out 12 conditions for that to occur.

"I'm against the use of eminent domain to acquire private property for private development," said Rep. Tom Yewcic, D-Johnstown.

While Yewcic is not happy with either the House (HB2054) or the Senate (SB881) versions of the proposed legislation, he expects one of the two, which have been passed by their respective legislative bodies, will be adopted.

He is particularly unhappy about the Senate bill because it allows Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Delaware County to be exempt from the new legislation until 2012.

These communities, through their urban redevelopment authorities, would be able to take properties that already have been certified as blighted prior to the bill becoming law.This provision is not in the House bill.

"That promotes two Pennsylvanias - one the land of the free, the other the land of the oppressed," he said.

Among the 12 reasons the bills identify for a property to be designated as blighted, include a "public nuisance" because of its physical condition or use.

Another is that it is an "attractive nuisance" to children because of its physical condition, use or occupancy. Examples of these types of properties include abandoned wells or shafts, excavation sites, or unsafe fences or structures.

Action to amend the state's eminent domain law was prompted by a U.S. Supreme Court's 5-4 ruling in the Kelo vs. City of New London, Conn., case in June that gives local governments broad power to use eminent domain to take private property for private development that will generate tax revenue.

Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Squirrel Hill, said he favors use of eminent domain to obtain property for private developers when it benefits the entire community. Eminent domain was used in East Liberty several years ago on nine properties to help build a Home Depot on land formerly occupied by a Sears store, he said.

"That was a $40 million development, which, in turn, has help promote another $140 million in other developments either built or planned in East Liberty," Frankel said.

He also expects a bill to be adopted this spring,

Gov. Ed Rendell has endorsed neither bill, said Kate Philips, the governor's press secretary.

"He wants a bill that is equally balanced, one that acknowledges the homeowner's rights and one that permits a community to move forward on a project," she said.

A group known as 10,000 Friends of Pennsylvania, isn't happy with either bill because they limit the ability of public agencies to use eminent domain to improve their communities.

In a letter addressed to the state legislators, Jane Milkman, president and chief executive officer of the Philadelphia-based group, wrote that "radical changes in this law should not be made without fully considering the impact on our older communities."

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