- The Washington Times - Monday, October 3, 2005

ANNAPOLIS — It has been almost six years, but Georgeann Lynch still vividly remembers the blunt warning that she and her mother got from a Baltimore County employee: The county wants your home; there is nothing you can do about it, so get a lawyer to guide you through the process.

“We were, like, stunned,” Miss Lynch recalls. “This property has been in my family since the 1880s. My grandparents built this house.”

Miss Lynch and many of her neighbors were the targets of a Baltimore County plan in 1999 to condemn their property for an upscale development project that would bring expensive homes and shops to Baltimore County’s Middle River area.

Word of the plan to seize private property created a huge backlash, and Miss Lynch and her neighbors were able to organize resistance, put the plan on the ballot and defeat it.

The issue of private property rights faded into the background in Maryland after voters settled the high-profile Baltimore County battle in 2002, but it has resurfaced and is expected to be a major topic of debate when the General Assembly convenes in January.

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June that local governments can seize private property and turn it over to developers for projects that will generate more tax revenues made land condemnation a hot topic nationally.

At least half the states are considering new limits on condemnation powers or already have passed legislation.

In Maryland, lawmakers are preparing bills that would amend state law or the state constitution to restrict the ability of municipal and county governments to force people to sell their property to the government.

There is a consensus that governments sometimes need to condemn land for public purposes, such as building schools and roads, when private landowners aren’t willing to sell. But many lawmakers adamantly oppose taking land and then turning it over to private developers.

“I’ve gotten numerous calls from constituents who are concerned about their property rights,” said state Sen. James E. DeGrange Sr., Anne Arundel County Democrat.

Mr. DeGrange doesn’t think a constitutional amendment is required and plans to introduce a bill that would amend state law to restrict the use of condemnation to force the sale of private property.

He said condemnation is sometimes proper, citing as an example a project under way in Baltimore that is redeveloping blighted inner-city properties.

“But we want to ensure that a developer won’t come in and take somebody’s property because they want to put in a shopping center,” he said. “That’s not the way the law has been practiced over the years.”

“I just think the Supreme Court has gone way over the line,” Mr. DeGrange said.

Some Baltimore County Republican lawmakers, including Delegate Richard K. Impallaria, want to go further. They plan to introduce a constitutional amendment to protect rights to private property.

The issue is personal for Mr. Impallaria. He was among the residents whose property was targeted for condemnation for the Middle River project, and the active role he played in defeating the plan led to his election to the House of Delegates.

Mr. Impallaria favors stricter limits on condemnation powers than Mr. DeGrange.

“I would say the government should not be able to take property and turn around and sell it to another person,” he said. “The property should only be able to be taken for roads and schools and infrastructure and only when all other avenues have been used first.”

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