2007 Eminent Domain Report Card: Tennessee Gets A “D-”

Matt Powers
Matt Powers · June 6, 2007

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

“Tennessee homeowners are less 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, “Just like several other states, Tennessee created a state commission to study the use of eminent domain and ways of reining in abuse. State legislators filed dozens of bills intended to make sure that Tennesseans would not have to worry about their own homes, businesses, farms, or houses of worship being condemned for someone else’s private benefit. But of all the possible eminent domain reform bills to choose from, the General Assembly ended up selecting two that did very little to improve the protection of property rights in their state.”

House Bill 3450/Senate Bill 3296 made a slight improvement to the state’s definition of “blight,” yet the definition still remains too broad. The bills also provided some additional notice to property owners during the condemnation process. The bills did remove the power of eminent domain from certain parties and modified the state’s definition of “public use” to exclude economic development, but they still permit governmental entities to transfer property no longer being used for a public use to another public or private party and they expressly allow the government to condemn properties for the purposes of building “industrial parks.” House Bill 3700 actually seems to be a bit of a regression, changing a previous requirement that condemning authorities publish notices (including a map of the targeted area) once a week for three consecutive weeks to a requirement that the condemning authority post the map of the targeted area for review in at least two locations. House Bill 3700 also removes a prior requirement that condemning authorities obtain approval from the governing body of the affected county unless the condemnations were pursuant to a redevelopment plan that utilized tax increment financing applicable to the county property tax levy.

The report concluded, “These changes to Tennessee’s law should be deeply disappointing to the state’s citizens, especially since the General Assembly could have selected from any number of bills that would have offered real, substantial protections for citizens’ property rights. Due to the legislature’s failure to fix the state’s definition of blight, the issues will need to be revisited if Tennesseans are to be assured of the property rights protections they deserve.”

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 Tennessee 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.]