- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 22, 2006

ANNAPOLIS (AP) — A campaign to amend the Maryland Constitution to prohibit local governments from seizing private land for economic development projects appears to be running into trouble in the General Assembly.

Two key Democratic lawmakers whose committees handle eminent domain legislation said Tuesday that they don’t see the need to amend the constitution this year because county and municipal governments have not misused their power.

“I don’t think people can point to any egregious examples in Maryland of abuse of eminent domain authority,” said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, Montgomery County Democrat.

He is chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, which will handle the proposed constitutional amendments.

His House counterpart, Delegate Maggie L. McIntosh, Baltimore Democrat, agreed.

Miss McIntosh is chairman of the House Environmental Matters Committee, which heard testimony Tuesday on 28 bills dealing with governmental condemnation powers.

Miss McIntosh said there might be a need for legislation dealing with compensation for owners whose property is taken as well as legislation to protect agricultural land from being condemned by governments for development projects.

Eminent domain emerged as a heated national issue after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that local governments can seize private property and turn it over to developers for projects that will generate more tax revenues.

Some Democratic lawmakers quickly prepared legislation to amend the state constitution to allow condemnation power to be used only to take land needed for public purposes such as schools and highways.

Republicans in the Senate and House of Delegates made a constitutional amendment a key part of their 2006 legislative program.

Those proposals are opposed by local governments and some business groups that think condemnation powers are required for projects such as the Inner Harbor in Baltimore and the revitalization of Silver Spring in Montgomery County.

“The people I talk to want a constitutional amendment,” said Sen. Andrew P. Harris, a Baltimore County Republican and a co-sponsor of the Senate constitutional amendment.

“It’s a little guy’s bill,” he said.

Mr. Harris said he sees little chance of an amendment passing this year.

“Even if the bill is buried this year by the leaders of the General Assembly because they don’t want it on the ballot, this issue is not going away,” he said. “I have yet to meet a homeowner who wants to give the government the right to take their property for economic development.”

Miss McIntosh said that without eminent domain powers, Baltimore would not have been able to carry out major urban renewal projects such as the Inner Harbor, the biotech park, two sports stadiums and the current West Side redevelopment project.

“Eminent domain has been used, but it’s used as a last resort. Think of the tax base and think of what might exist in terms of Baltimore being a drain on the rest of the state if it couldn’t in fact go in and not only remove blight but redevelop aging and decrepit and outdated business areas,” she said.

Mr. Frosh cited the bustling downtown Silver Spring area as proof of the value of using eminent domain for economic development purposes.

“It was an economic desert,” he said. “It literally turned the place around.”

Leslie Knapp, associate director of the Maryland Association of Counties, said county governments are “opposed to any type of prohibition on the use of eminent domain for economic or urban renewal purposes.”

“Maryland jurisdictions have been very, very restrained in the use of eminent domain for purely economic development purposes,” Mr. Knapp said.

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