2007 Eminent Domain Report Card: Alabama Gets A “B+”

Matt Powers
Matt Powers · June 6, 2007

Arlington, Va.—Alabama home and small business owners have reason to celebrate according to a 50-state eminent domain report card released today. In the two years since the infamous Kelo eminent domain ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court that allowed eminent domain for private gain, Alabama has passed strong legislation protecting small property owners from eminent domain abuse.

“Alabama homeowners are more protected from eminent domain abuse today than they were the day the Kelo decision was announced,” said Steven Anderson, director of the Castle Coalition, a Virginia-based grassroots organization that examined and graded eminent domain laws for each of the 50 states since the Kelo ruling. Read the report at: www.CastleCoalition.org/publications/report_card.

According to the report, “In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Kelo v. City of New London, Alabama was the very first state to react legislatively to give its citizens stronger protections against the use of eminent domain for private profit. Senate Bill 68 (2005) specified that eminent domain could not be used for ‘private retail, office, commercial, industrial, or residential development; or primarily for enhancement of tax revenue; or for transfer to a person, nongovernmental entity, public-private partnership, corporation, or other business entity.’” The reports stated that the language was a good start to reforming the state’s eminent domain laws.

The report went on, “But while in one clause the law gave home and small business owners, farmers, and ranchers the substantial protection they deserve, a different clause within the same law gave rise to another threat to citizens’ property rights. SB 68 prohibited cities and counties from using eminent domain for private development or for enhancing tax revenue, but it left an exception for the seizure of so-called blighted properties. This would have allowed property to be condemned under blight law if it might become blighted in the future, or if the property is deemed ‘obsolescent’—usually a code word for ‘We’d like to have something else here.’ And if the property was condemned for blight, cities could still turn it over to private interests.”

The reports stated, “House Bill 654 was passed in 2006 to pick up where SB 68 left off, significantly closing the blight loophole by narrowing the criteria by which property could be designated as blighted. Under HB 654, blight designations must be made on a property-by-property basis, which prevents vague and abusive blight designations that cover an entire neighborhood. The criteria to determine blight now ensure that only truly unsafe or neglected properties can be acquired and then given to a private developer.”

The report concluded, “Alabama has proved to be a national leader in eminent domain reform. It is important to note, however, that statutory reforms are at risk of amendment in future legislative sessions. Alabama has excellent constitutional language prohibiting eminent domain for private use. However, the state’s property owners would be best protected if its constitution also included a traditional, narrow definition of public use.”

Among the states that passed the strongest reforms protecting property owners are Florida, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota and South Dakota, each of which received an A or A-minus grade. States that received F’s were: Arkansas, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, Oklahoma and Rhode Island.

“In only two years since Kelo, 41 states have reformed their laws to offer greater protection to small property owners,” said Jenifer Zeigler, legislative affairs attorney with the Castle Coalition. “But much more work remains if homeowners, small business owners, churches and farmers are to be as safe as those in Alabama from the unholy alliance of tax-hungry governments and land-hungry developers.”

The report seeks to step back and evaluate the legislative work that has been done and is left to do. It finds, “Some states have passed model reforms that can serve as an example for others. Some states enacted nominal reform—possibly because of haste, oversight or compromise—and need to know what is left to fix. And finally, there are those states that have failed to act altogether, leaving home, farm, and business owners threatened by Kelo-type takings and beyond.”

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[NOTE: To arrange interviews on this subject, journalists may call John Kramer, the Institute for Justice’s vice president for communications, at (703) 682-9320 ext. 205 or in the evening/weekend at (703) 527-8730. For more information on eminent domain abuse, visit www.ij.org or www.castlecoalition.org.]