2007 Eminent Domain Report Card: Maine Gets A “D+”

Matt Powers
Matt Powers · June 6, 2007

Arlington, Va.—Maine home and small business owners have reason to be concerned 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, Maine has done little to protect property owners across the state.

“Maine homeowners are not much 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 national 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, the state of Maine edged toward providing stronger protections for its citizens’ property rights by passing Legislative Document 1870, which says that it is not a public use to condemn property “for the purposes of private retail, office, commercial, industrial or residential development.” The bill also specifies that eminent domain may not be used “primarily for the enhancement of tax revenue” or to “transfer to a person, nongovernmental entity, public-private partnership, corporation or other business entity.”

The use of qualifiers such as “primarily” means that the statute will be easy to circumvent because local governments can assert some other primary purpose for private-to-private takings. Even worse, Maine’s new law also includes gaping exceptions for the acquisition of so-called “blighted” properties pursuant to the state’s overly broad urban renewal laws. Despite the state’s new, limited definition of public use, the urban renewal laws, as currently written, allow perfectly fine properties to be designated as “blighted,” condemned, and handed over to private developers. It is particularly important that these problems be addressed in a traditional vacation destination like Maine, as recent trends have seen commercial developers cutting deals with local governments to wipe out poorer, older neighborhoods and replace them with projects that cater to the wealthy. Thus, the Legislature needs to change the definition of blight to ensure that properties are evaluated on a parcel-by-parcel basis and subject to condemnation only if they are a real threat to the health and safety of the community.

The report concluded, “Until the Legislature acts to close these loopholes, the state’s eminent domain laws will continue to allow local governments to condemn homes, businesses, and places of worship for private profit.”

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- 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, farmers and churches in Maine and beyond are to be safe 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.]