5 bills target government property grabs

Lawmakers assail takeovers for economic development, recreation

Posted: Sunday, January 01, 2006

Alaska Republicans pre-filed five bills Friday to prevent public officials in Alaska from seizing private land through eminent domain for economic development.

Republicans and property rights advocates across the country are outraged over possible seizures through eminent domain, and a flood of legislation is expected in many states this year.

The tempest began with a controversial July 23 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a Connecticut case that allowed a community to condemn homes to pave the way for economic development.

"Whether it's Wal-Mart or a hotel ... I don't support private entities using government against the people of our state," said Rep. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, a co-sponsor of one of the Alaska bills.

Several of the eminent domain bills would go a step further. They would prevent the use of eminent domain for public recreation and greenbelt projects in Alaska.

Juneau has at least one heavily used recreation area - the Mendenhall River greenbelt, created in the late 1980s - that would have been illegal under those bills, city officials said last Friday.

"That would have knocked (the greenbelt) right out of there," Juneau city manager Rod Swope said.

Juneau city officials invoked eminent domain for the greenbelt because several hold-out property owners were declining to sell, Swope said.

On the other hand, a large number of people in the Mendenhall Valley were very supportive of the greenbelt, he said. "You certainly have to demonstrate a real public interest before you try to exercise it."

The Mendenhall River greenbelt eminent domain case went before a judge. The city and the owner were "millions of dollars apart in terms of what the property was worth" but the case was resolved in a settlement, according to Juneau Assembly records.

In general, the Juneau Assembly has been very reluctant to invoke eminent domain, Swope said.

"It's something that should only be exercised if there is a significant public interest or a public health and safety issue," Swope said.

Juneau Mayor Bruce Botelho said state officials should not interfere with local decision-making by passing new restrictions on the use of eminent domain.

"To me, (this) effort is a solution looking for a problem ... there is no hint of abuse in Alaska. We have a constitution that favors local control and local governance. It should be honored here," Botelho said.

The mayor agreed with Swope that the Assembly has been wary of using eminent domain but he cited one other local case of eminent domain in Juneau - the 1960s and 1970s urban renewal project downtown between Glacier Avenue and the Juneau-Douglas bridge street intersection.

"The city was revitalizing areas that were dilapidated ... It involved eradicating some housing," Botelho said. The city's downtown fire station and Goldbelt Plaza are two buildings now located in that area.

The Supreme Court noted in its July decision that the law doesn't prohibit states from restricting or even eliminating eminent domain if they choose to.

Prior to the Supreme Court decision, some states - including Washington, Montana, Arkansas, South Carolina, Kentucky, Maine, Florida and Illinois - already barred eminent domain for economic development.

Under the new Alaska legislative bills, eminent domain could still be used for public uses, such as roads, culverts or pipelines.

But House Bill 318 is one of several that would prevent the use of eminent domain for parks, trails, pedestrian paths, greenbelts, access to wilderness areas, amusement parks, small-boat facilities, personal-use fisheries, sports facilities, playgrounds or other projects related to recreation.

It is sponsored by Reps. Lesil McGuire, Mike Hawker, Stoltze, Gatto, Peggy Wilson, Vic Kohring, Gabrielle LeDoux, Nancy Dahlstrom and Mike Kelly.

Other Republican legislators sponsoring bills to restrict eminent domain include Jim Holm, Bob Lynn, Con Bunde and Ralph Seekins.

• Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at elizabeth.bluemink@juneauempire.com.



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