Eminent Domain Reform is Back, But So Far, It’s Not Good

The Rhode Island legislature has picked up right where it left off last session on the issue of eminent domain reform, with Representative Charlene Lima’s (D-Cranston) not-very-good bill as the leading candidate in the House. Here’s the main body of her proposed “reform” (H5079)…

37-6-13.2. Limitations on acquisition of land. – (a) Notwithstanding any provision of law to the contrary, no public corporation, municipality, quasi-state agency, state agency, or any political subdivision thereof, shall exercise their power of eminent domain to acquire private property for the purpose of conferring a private benefit or use for a particular private entity…
It is difficult to say that this law would mean anything at all, for two reasons…
  1. If the government declares that raising the tax-value of a property is the “purpose” of a taking, and that conferring a private benefit is just an means to an end, is that allowed or not?
  2. The inclusion of the “particular” modifier, as Representative Nick Gorham pointed out last session, does nothing but add confusion. Suppose the government takes a neighborhood by eminent domain, then splits the land between two condo developers. Or how about giving it to just one condo developer, whose project will eventually be purchased by multiple owners? Because benefits will eventually go to more than one “particular private entity”, is the taking allowed or not?
Under H5079, questions like these will ultimately have to be decided by the courts, even though insulating eminent domain questions from the possibility of overly-expansive interpretations by judges — remember, the problem supposedly being addressed by this bill was created by judicial overreaching in the first place (Kelo v. New London) — is supposed to be the central purpose of eminent domain reform. H5079 clearly fails to do what it needs to do.

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