GOP pushes for property vote

State constitutional amendment would restrict eminent domain


In an attempt to counter a recent Supreme Court decision, Republican state legislators yesterday proposed a constitutional amendment to ban Maryland governments from taking private property for economic development.

Maryland courts have long recognized the state government's right to condemn property for economic development -- in fact, a Maryland case was cited in the Supreme Court's opinion on the issue this summer in Kelo v. City of New London.

But Republicans -- and Democrats, who are working on a similar but less restrictive proposal -- said the Kelo case has brought public focus to what they see as potentially dangerous exercise of government power.

"A baseline principle, one that Republicans believe in very strongly, is the right to private property, and the government should not have the right to confiscate that property ... for anything but a public use" such as roads or schools, said Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, the Senate minority leader from the Eastern Shore.

The majority decision in Kelo held that a government's power to force citizens to sell their property extends to projects that create jobs or increase the tax base. The Republicans' proposal would change existing laws by limiting condemnation to taking property for roads, schools and other publicly owned developments.

In Maryland, the Kelo case appears to have galvanized bipartisan support for restrictions. A Democratic senator, James Brochin of Towson, has also begun drafting a proposed amendment, and other Democrats in the House and Senate are working on legislation to restrict condemnation.

By pursuing an amendment, Republicans are moving to put the strongly emotional issue of private property rights on the 2006 ballot at the same time that they are making a major push to re-elect the state's first GOP governor in a generation and increase their numbers in the legislature.

The Republicans said they have not spoken with the Democratic leadership in the House and Senate about the issue. Republicans, outnumbered 2-1 in the General Assembly, need Democratic votes to pass any legislation. But for a constitutional amendment, which requires a three-fifths majority to get on the ballot, they need substantial bipartisan support.

Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the House minority whip from Southern Maryland, said the GOP legislators wanted to take the lead on an issue they believe will be popular with the voters, in a sense to advertise for their party.

"We wanted to portray a picture of what the General Assembly could look like with our type of leadership," O'Donnell said. "It's clear that if we were in the majority in the Senate and House, this would pass with flying colors, so fast your head would spin."

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. gave a general endorsement yesterday of added restrictions on condemnation, as did Mayor Martin O'Malley, a Democratic candidate for governor, and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, another Democrat who plans to announce for governor this week.

None provided specifics on what the restrictions should be, and Duncan and O'Malley cautioned that condemnation for economic development can sometimes create great public benefits, such as in the Inner Harbor, the East Baltimore biotech park and downtown Silver Spring, which has been revitalized with new shops, residences and offices in recent years.

Democratic Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, who has also been working on eminent domain restrictions, said a task force has been considering the issue for two years and will soon issue recommendations. He said more restrictions on condemnation for development likely are necessary, as is additional compensation for those whose property is taken, but not an all-out ban.

Republican legislators said limits on condemnation deserve a place in the constitution because property rights are fundamental and limits on them should not be changed easily.

But Sen. James E. DeGrange Sr., an Anne Arundel County Democrat who is working on an eminent domain bill, said that attempting a constitutional amendment instead of simple legislation would only delay the restrictions.

An amendment would have to be approved by voters before going into effect. Emergency legislation could go into effect as early as July 1 with the governor's approval.

Condemnation for economic development has been a hot issue in Maryland before. In 2000, then-Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Democrat, proposed taking property, including homes, for revitalization of the county's east side. Residents there fought back and took the proposal to a countywide referendum, where it was soundly defeated.

The Republican legislators repeatedly mentioned that plan, known as Senate Bill 509, in announcing their proposal.

Del. Richard K. Impallaria, a Baltimore County Republican who was elected after helping lead the fight against S.B. 509, said an amendment is needed to make sure property owners don't have to go through that kind of fight again. Moreover, he said, the new houses sprouting along Baltimore County's waterfront show that incentives, not condemnation, are the best way to spur development.

"Baltimore County is an example of why eminent domain isn't necessary," he said. "The east side is doing better than anybody ever thought it was going to do."

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