“Debating eminent domain”

PDF: 2006 January, KC Star, ‘Debating eminent domain’

The following article appeared in The Kansas City Star.

“Debating eminent domain”
Benjamin Hodge
The Kansas City Star
Date: January 5, 2006

When a precedent of 220 years is altered, the public deserves a debate. In Johnson County, one elected official should be commended for enabling an important debate. Johnson County Commissioner John Toplikar, by appointing a committee to examine the issue of eminent domain, has taken the lead in serving the public on this issue.

Opinions and outcomes aside, the people of Johnson County are better, and the county is stronger overall, because of this discussion.

The power the state has to take property is a matter that involves the changing of a long-standing precedent. The state now has greater authority to take private property through the use of eminent domain. This is not debatable. Because of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 Kelo decision, the property-rights playing field has been altered.

Unless a U.S. state has a law or a constitutional provision limiting the use of eminent domain – and Kansas does not – it is now acceptable for a local government to transfer private property from one owner to another for the purposes of economic development (e.g., to create jobs or to increase sales taxes).

How state and local governments should respond is debatable. But, again, that the rules have changed is not up for debate. And what concerns me the most is not the future of property rights in Kansas, but the level of silence with which elected leaders in Johnson County have responded.

The committee on eminent domain had two public forums, and even with only marginal press coverage, the turnout was positive.

If the committee recommends limitations to the government’s ability to take private property, I am not certain what the County Commission would do with this. The seven commissioners could vote to limit the county’s ability to use eminent domain, and/or they could make a recommendation to the Kansas Legislature.

But on the morning of Dec. 1, Chairwoman Annabeth Surbaugh and five other commissioners approved a 2006 state legislative agenda of about 40 items that included a recommendation that the state not limit the ability to take property. This was not a close vote; it was a 6-0-1 vote, where Toplikar (remaining neutral) abstained.

They approved this legislative agenda, even though residents would be voicing their opinions on eminent domain later that night at the first public hearing. This was the same day the Surbaugh commission voted to add a public affairs position to, presumably, improve communication with the public.

The people of Johnson County will play a role in determining what will occur in Kansas next year with property rights. Major shifts in public policy need to occur with an open debate and public input.

Benjamin Hodge serves as chairman of the Johnson County committee on eminent domain, and he is a member of the Johnson County Community College Board of Trustees. He lives in Prairie Village.