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Juneau leaders target cities' right to seize homes

Supreme Court ruling on eminent domain rattles local residents

Posted: Sunday, July 10, 2005

A recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that gives local governments authority to seize private property for economic gains has Juneau residents and business leaders asking a lot of questions.

A panel of experts - Juneau Republican Rep. Bruce Weyhrauch; Don Bruce, partner of local law firm Baxter, Bruce and Sullivan; and Juneau Community Development Director Dale Pernula - spoke on the ruling at a Friday Juneau Chamber of Commerce luncheon.

According to the 5-4 court decision, local governments can force property owners to sell their property - even against their will - to make way for private economic development if the plan benefits the public.

The case was examined for homeowners in New London, Conn., where city officials are trying to raze a working-class neighborhood to make room for a riverfront hotel, health club and upscale housing near a $300 million research center being built by pharmaceuticals giant Pfizer.

Federal, state and local governments already have the power to seize land, a right known as eminent domain, for railways, airports and other transportation needs, or in the case of blighted property.

The new ruling says the property does not have to be blighted to be condemned, such as in the case in New London. And land can be taken if it can be used to create jobs.

In a dissent written by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, she said, "Nothing is to prevent the State from replacing any Motel 6 with a Ritz-Carlton, any home with a shopping mall, or any farm with a factory."

Attendants at the luncheon raised hypothetical situations of property being seized in Juneau.

In an example put forth by a Chamber member, the city could condemn a mobile home park on Douglas Island to make way for another cruise ship dock.

Pernula said that in most cases the city would not be interested in kicking people out of their homes. But in extreme situations, eminent domain can be useful, he said.

"Suppose if you lived in an isolated community like Juneau and had 25 percent unemployment, and you had the prospects of business coming to create a lot of jobs," Pernula said.

Bruce said he had never seen a Juneau case in which land was seized and people argued over the degree of public use. But people go to court to settle the value of the property.

Under the court ruling, Bruce said, the city would have to pay the property owner the anticipated commercial value of land rather than its current market value.

If a house was purchased to make room for a Taco Bell franchise, for example, the city must pay the owner the millions of dollars that commercial property is worth.

Generally, cities are interested in several parcels of land, rather than singling out one home, Pernula said.

One Chamber member inquired about churches losing their land, because many are located on street corners and prime spots for commercial development. Churches are tax-exempt, and a retail store or office park in its place would bring in more tax revenue. Bruce said that situation might produce a collision with the First Amendment.

The city is in the process of acquiring land on the downtown waterfront to expand Marine Park. It may tear down Merchants Wharf, a shopping and dining center that houses 25 commercial occupants.

Kevin Ritchie, executive director of the Alaska Municipal League, said he has not heard of any Alaska cities that plan to take advantage of the court ruling. In fact, Anchorage city officials will vote on a resolution saying they will not seize land for economic growth, he said.

• Andrew Petty can be reached at andrew.petty@juneauempire.com.



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