Maryland's Republican lawmakers announced yesterday that they will propose amending the state constitution to better protect property owners from efforts by the government to seize their land.
The proposal comes in response to a U.S. Supreme Court decision in June that permits local governments to force property owners to sell and make way for private economic development, even if the property is not blighted and the new project's success is not guaranteed.
Senate Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus (R-Somerset) said the ruling attacks "the bedrock principle . . . that the government should not have the right to confiscate your property" and that it puts the burden on state legislatures to expressly define the conditions under which local officials could exercise the power of eminent domain.
The opinion has all but ensured that state legislatures across the country will delve into the thorny issue, which has had implications in Maryland for everything from the redevelopment of Silver Spring to the revitalization of downtown Baltimore.
Republicans were first to publicize their plans, but one Democratic lawmaker said yesterday that he sent a similar proposal to bill drafters three weeks ago. Sen. James E. DeGrange Sr. (Anne Arundel) said he plans to introduce the measure when the General Assembly convenes in January. Although not invited to stand with the GOP caucus at yesterday's news conference, DeGrange said he expects this to eventually become a bipartisan effort.
"We're all trying to address the same thing," he said.
While there are members of both parties who support clarifying the law, they disagree over how to proceed. DeGrange said he has been advised by the state attorney general's office that amending the constitution is unnecessary; a simple bill would suffice.
Republicans "believe this directly addresses the rights of citizens, and they should have the chance to vote on it," said House Minority Whip Anthony J. O'Donnell (Calvert). An amendment would need a three-fifths vote in both chambers to go on the ballot.
Having the issue on the 2006 ballot may hold other advantages for Republicans, given that eminent domain has been a high-profile issue in Baltimore County, the heart of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s base of support, DeGrange said.
Ehrlich has not weighed in on the measure yet. His spokesman said yesterday that he is "receptive" to it but will wait to see it in final form before voicing a position.
Both major Democratic candidates for governor have tested the rights of local government to take private property for the redevelopment of blighted property.
In Montgomery, County Executive Douglas M. Duncan used the power to buy up 30 small commercial properties in downtown Silver Spring and then transfer them to developers who built a hotel, movie theater and shopping center.
Duncan said yesterday that he considers eminent domain "a tool of last resort."
"The revitalization of Silver Spring and the rebirth of the Baltimore Inner Harbor are good examples where a limited use of eminent domain played a part in creating an extraordinary public benefit," he said, responding to questions by e-mail. "However, great care and caution must go into any planning before eminent domain is ever used, and I support a healthy debate about further restrictions to its use."
For Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, the issue has been central to the redevelopment of the city's west side, where eminent domain has been used to buy large tracts to make room for luxury apartments.
"It's important to protect people's rights, but we also want to make sure that projects like the Inner Harbor or the East Baltimore biotech and housing redevelopment . . . won't be blocked," said Steve Kearney, an O'Malley spokesman.