Maryland Lawmakers Seek to Limit Eminent Domain

Republican legislators in Maryland said Tuesday they will propose an amendment to the state's constitution that would ban the seizure of private property (search) by government if it is to be turned over to private developers.

"Private property is private property," said state Republican Sen. Allan H. Kittleman. "When you own something it shouldn't be taken by the government."

This normally obscure issue of eminent domain (search) came to national attention with the controversial Kelo et. al. v. the City of New London, Conn., decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in June, which established that government could force the sale of private property for economic development.

"This is encouraging the displacement of low income residents," Kittleman said. "It's a reverse 'Robin Hood effect' — taking from the poor and giving to the rich."

The proposed amendment, announced at a news conference on Tuesday, is being called the Property Protection Act of 2006 and would limit the state to seizing property only for a public use — such as for schools, parks or roads, legislators said.

For the amendment to pass, it must receive three-fifths majorities of both the House of Delegates and Senate, and then must be approved by the state's voters in a referendum.

A spokesman for the Ehrlich administration said that the governor, a Republican, called the proposal a "very positive first step" but said Gov. Robert Ehrlich (search) would reserve judgment until he has seen the final draft of the amendment. Both Republicans and Democrats have emerged as supporters of the proposed amendment, or similar legislation, and have said economic development should not be considered a public use.

Sen. Jennie M. Forehand said she and several of her Democratic colleagues have been working toward legislation placing restrictions on eminent domain.

"There are different ways to solve this problem," she said. "But something needs to be done to solve it. It would be wonderful to find something we can agree on."

Andrew Langer, spokesman for the National Federation of Independent Business, Maryland's largest small business advocacy group, said this issue is especially important to small businesses and small property owners who can most easily be hurt when developers and government come together.

"The founders didn't envision that the power of eminent domain would be used this way," he said.

Eminent domain should only be used when a legitimate public use can be demonstrated and when just compensation to the property owner can be paid, he said.

"A loose definition of public use leads to an abuse of power when it comes to eminent domain," he said. "The power to physically take property away from citizens should be constrained."

Although the exact language of the proposed amendment has not yet been drafted, Langer said he thinks most members of small businesses in Maryland will come out in favor of acting on this issue.

Republican Delegate Anthony J. O'Donnell said this type of legislation makes sense because there are other ways the government could work toward economic development, such as by using free-market incentives.

"Eminent domain should be an issue of last resort," he said. "Everybody feels that the Kelo decision was very wrong."

Republican Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus said the issue of eminent domain is a "bedrock principle" for Republicans, but will be supported by legislators on both sides of the aisle.

He predicted that the House and Senate will work together during the next session to draft an amendment that both houses can accept.

Capital News Service contributed to this report.