2007 Eminent Domain Report Card: Missouri Gets A “D”

Matt Powers
Matt Powers · June 6, 2007

Arlington, Va.—Missouri 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, Missouri has done little to protect property owners across the state.

“Missouri 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, “particularly after the Supreme Court’s decision in Kelo, Missouri is a state sorely in need of eminent domain reform. For years redevelopment agencies throughout the state have used bogus blight designations to acquire private property for private development. The General Assembly had the opportunity to dramatically improve its eminent domain laws, but let its citizens down by failing to adopt real, substantial reforms.”

The state government did adopt House Bill 1944 (2006), which changes the law in several ways. The new law does specify that property cannot be condemned “solely” for economic development and it ends the prior practice of letting private developers initiate condemnations on their own behalf, but it continues to allow government agencies to take private property for the use of other private parties for any other justification, no matter how small or irrelevant. Conveniently for tax-hungry local governments and land-hungry developers, the law continues to let cities condemn whole neighborhoods as “blighted” based on vague, subjective factors such as “inadequate street layout,” “unsafe conditions,” and “obsolete platting.” Although it is a marginal improvement that such blight designations must now occur on a property-by-property basis—at least until a preponderance of the properties are blighted—the operational definition is so broad that any community could be at risk, no matter how well maintained. The new law says that blighted areas must be condemned within five years of their designations or else a new designation will be required, and farmland is specifically exempted from being declared blighted. HB 1944 also establishes an Office of Ombudsman in the Office of Public Counsel within the Department of Economic Development, which will ostensibly serve to assist property owners that are under threat of eminent domain.

When all of these minor changes are taken into account, however, the end result is not much different from the starting point. Almost every home, business and house of worship in Missouri may still be taken by any municipality or government agency with a little patience, ingenuity, and a wealthy developer to provide the financial incentive. Citizens will only have meaningful protection against eminent domain abuse when blight can only be used to describe property that is an actual danger to public health or safety, and that means the state needs to amend the state constitution to remove Art. VI, Sec. 21, which currently allows condemnation of blighted areas.

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 Missouri 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.]