MOULTRIE -- All of Colquitt County's delegation to the Georgia General Assembly said the Supreme Court was out of line when it ruled last week that governments can seize private property for economic development.
"There may be some certain circumstances in which it would be acceptable -- if it's some type of estate or an absentee property owner or somebody just trying to hold somebody up on the cost of it. But in general, the importance of protecting property rights outweighs any of that. There's just no question about it. I've never liked the power governing authorities have when it comes to eminent domain. It becomes necessary sometimes when you're talking about road rights-of-way or for general use of the public. That's the only time I think eminent domain should be used -- if it's a project for the general public's use and there's no other way around it," said Sen. John Bulloch, R-Ochlocknee.
Rep. Richard Royal, D-Camilla, echoed those sentiments.
"I think that is a very serious infraction on personal rights. I believe in personal property rights, and I don't think it's right to turn it over to another developer, even if it does create additional income for a local government. I can't support that," said Rep. Richard Royal, D-Camilla. "There are places where eminent domain is necessary for government to expand some type of service which they do themselves, but to turn it over to another investor, I just don't support that."
Rep. Penny Houston, R-Nashville, said the Supreme Court is way off base in its deciision. "It is just un-American," she said.
"I can't control what's happening in Washington, but I can have some input in what's going on in Atlanta. ... I will work to keep this from happening in Georgia," she said.
Rep. Ed Rynders, R-Albany, also leans toward the rights of property owners.
"I disagree with my understanding of the Supreme Court ruling, and while we all look for ways to enhance economic development, we must make sure that our good intentions don't trample on our rights," he said. "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. What you see as a blight, somebody sees as their inalienable right to own property and to do what they want with it. ... When you open up that can of worms for governmental intervention, we'd better be very, very careful. The road to Hades is paved with good intentions."
But, he said, what rubs municipalities the wrong way is when owners fall down on the upkeep of their properties.
Moultrie City Manager Bob Hopkins sees things differently and believes that governments' right of eminent domain must be protected. Eminent domain is most often exercised in road or utility construction or revitalizing blighted areas. It must remain in governments' "bag of tools" to further the public good when other efforts fail, he said. But, he emphasized, eminent domain is used sparingly and with great caution.
From time to time, the City of Moultrie has used eminent domain to seize property. Most recently, a fraction of an acre owned by Derell Plymel along the Quitman Highway was condemned to fold into the new industrial park anchored by Sanderson Farms. Last year, several nuissance properties in Southeast Moultrie were seized and razed in a joint project with the Moultrie Housing Authority. The notorious Rat Row, a run-down neighborhood in Northwest Moultrie, was taken through eminent domain some years ago. In its place were built the health department and a park.
"I think that most communities, historically, have used it very sparingly and only as a matter of last resort, but when public interest overrides private interests, you have to have a vehicle to satisfy public interests. In the case of Sanderson Farms, I think that was clearly what the purpose was," Hopkins said.
It should be clarified that when property is seized in such procedure, the owner is paid a fair price.
In some circumstances, transference of property to a developer is necessary, the city manager noted. Cities aren't in the business of building houses and other structures, he said.
"My view is if you're going to make substantial changes in a neighborhood, sometimes these mechanisms are necessary to achieve that objective," Hopkins said.
This week, the Georgia Senate appointed a committee to study eminent domain. Earlier, Attorney General Thurbert Baker assured citizens that Georgia law would preserve private property owners' interests more so than in the Connecticut case brought before the high court. But local legislators want to make doubly sure and expect to consider legislation that will limit the reach of government.
After S.B. 5, similar to the Supreme Court's decision, was shot down this session, another bill, S.B. 86, passed the Senate in a 40 to 10 vote and is now under review by a House committee. S.B. 86 calls for limits on eminent domain that fall short of economic development interests. The Georgia Muncipal Association was in the forefront of lobbying for S.B. 5 and subsequently against S.B. 86, Bulloch said. The senator added that perhaps lawmakers need to add more clarity to the bill now after the Supreme Court decision, and he hopes that the S.B. 86 will be presented early in the upcoming session.
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