Hearings to look at eminent domain

The following article appeared in The Kansas City Star.

“Hearings to look at eminent domain”
Finn Bullers
The Kansas City Star
December 1, 2005

Your home is your castle, the cynics will tell you, until the government wants to buy you out and take your land. That fear – fed by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling this summer affirming that local governments can take private property for public economic gain – has stoked a spirited national debate on eminent domain.

Tonight, one Johnson County commissioner plans to jump-start the dialogue here.

Commissioner John Toplikar of Olathe will be host to the first of two public hearings to gauge the public’s appetite for limiting the county’s power to use eminent domain, also known as condemnation.

The move has taken county officials by surprise.

They say they can’t remember the last time the power was used in any significant way to condemn someone’s land and pay fair market value.

In the last 20 years, the county has never used the power as a tool for economic development as Wyandotte County did, for Kansas Speedway, and Merriam did, for its Town Center shopping district, said Don Jarrett, the commission’s chief legal counsel.

But the fact that they can, critics say, should be warning enough.As the commission’s point person for economic development, Toplikar has appointed a four-member committee to study the issue and make a recommendation to him by mid-January.

Repeated efforts to reach Toplikar were unsuccessful this week, but he has sent mixed signals as to where he stands on the topic.

As the commission’s voting member to the Kansas Association of Counties, Toplikar voted for that group’s legislative platform, which endorses eminent domain “for economic development purposes while strengthening the process in a manner that balances private property interests and the welfare of the community at large.”

But at a recent County Commission meeting, Toplikar said he generally doesn’t support the idea of legislative platforms.

He also did not weigh in on a county legislative plank opposing “undue restrictions” on eminent domain, but had said previously that he didn’t like the practice.

Commissioners will vote on its legislative platform today.

Meanwhile, Toplikar has appointed Ben Hodge, an MBA student at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and a Johnson County Community College trustee, to lead the eminent domain committee.

Hodge said the committee may recommend that the county amend its charter to limit the use of eminent domain. Any charter change would have to be approved by voters.

The idea is not popular with some.

Larry McAulay, the county’s director of legal services, said critics don’t understand that the county commissioners already have the authority they need to prevent abuses.

“You don’t need to pass a law to tell yourself not to do it,” McAulay said. You just don’t do it.”

It’s difficult, McAulay added, to draft restrictions without eliminating the ability to take private property for uses like sewers and roads.

“Yes, there are isolated incidents where a given governing body went too far,” he said. “But if a mistake is to be made, let it be made at the local level” where elected officials may pay the price at the polls.

But Hodge wants a safeguard up front.

“Usually our representatives act in good faith. However, the laws for eminent domain need to be changed because once land is taken and houses are torn down, you can’t take that back.”

To reach Finn Bullers, call (816) 234-7705 or send e-mail to fbullers@kcstar.com