Legislature should tackle property rights legislation

A pair of bills that would curb the government's power to seize your home or business may not even get a hearing this year.

The proposals, part of a package of legislation requested by state Attorney General Rob McKenna, have been targeted for defeat by Washington's cities.

So far, lobbyists for the state's municipalities have succeeded in keeping the bills from coming before either of the relevant House committees, McKenna said.

Maybe that can change with some pressure on Rep. Geoff Simpson, chairman of the House Local Government and Housing Committee, and Rep. Jamie Pederson, chairman of the House Judicial Committee.

There's plenty of evidence to suggest legislation is needed to restrict government's power to force the sale of private property through eminent domain.

Some ability to take control of private lands is necessary, of course. If the government couldn't condemn property for public projects we'd have few highways, dams, military installations, irrigation projects and the like.

But a different use of eminent domain to eliminate blight and revitalize urban neighborhoods is raising serious questions of abuse in cities across Washington.

According to McKenna's analysis, Washington's Community Renewal Law encourages cities to violate the state Constitution's prohibition against taking private property for private use.

As it stands, cities can schedule for renewal virtually any neighborhood if it includes some blighted property -- effectively transferring homes that are in perfect repair into the hands of a private developer.

A new study by the Washington Policy Center and the Institute for Justice's Washington Chapter found that such cases aren't that rare.

The report claims officials in Auburn, Bellingham, Bremerton, Renton, Seattle, Tukwila and Walla Walla used the blight designation to transfer private property to private developers.

In the last decade, the homes, businesses and properties of more than 48,000 Washington residents have been subject to official action that involved the threat or use of eminent domain power to transfer land to private developers, according to the study.

"In almost all cases, the result of using the Community Renewal Law was to generate profits for developers, while increasing tax revenues for local officials," the study concluded.

Those are poor reasons to force people out of their homes.

The bills proposed by McKenna would prohibit use of eminent domain for economic development and redefine blight so that it applies only to specific properties rather than broad areas.

The legislation also would reform the state's Community Renewal Law to keep cities from using it as the means for transferring private property from one private party and to another for economic development purposes.

Washington's cities might have some good arguments against any additional checks on their powers to condemn private property.

If so, let them make their case in an open committee hearing, where both sides are heard by a bipartisan contingent of lawmakers.

Legislation that touches on the most basic rights of Washington's citizens deserves a hearing. For the committee chairmen to squelch the debate before it's even started is wrong.