A bill prohibiting local governments from taking private property for economic development purposes cleared the Senate last week, aimed at preventing a practice permitted by state law that has frustrated property owners statewide.
Senate Bill 5445, sponsored by Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, restricts the use of eminent domain authority to purposes with a direct public benefit. The bill passed the Senate 25-24 and now moves to the House for consideration.
Padden, chairman of the Senate Law and Justice Committee, said the bill aims to prevent the common practice of local government agencies of taking private property for private developments that improve the local tax base. Although the law requires compensation for property owners, Padden said the practice improperly cheats them of the right to negotiate their best price.
“We need to distinguish between proper uses of eminent domain authority, for roads and public facilities, and takings by government that serve private interests,” Padden said. “Property owners are rightly angered when their property is taken and given to a private developer. Not only does this bill protect private-property rights, it protects the individual against government coercion.”
The Washington constitution prohibits government from taking private property for private use, with certain exceptions, but for more than 50 years state law has permitted local government authorities to take private property for redevelopment schemes that have essentially the same goal.
One example was outlined at a Law and Justice Committee hearing Jan. 17. A Redmond property owner described an effort by the city to re-route a stream to her land, making that portion unusable, at the behest of six nearby commercial property owners who wish to develop the streambed presently on their property. The landowner told the committee she feels the city’s valuation is too low, yet she has only a limited ability to appeal.
“Cases like this one are all too common,” Padden said. “Private developments are essential to our economy, but government should not abridge private-property rights to pursue them.”
Padden’s bill has precedent in other states. In the wake of a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision permitting such practices, some 40 states have enacted legislation to curb the use of eminent domain when no direct public benefit is involved.