Attorney General Rob McKenna announces bills to reign in the government’s eminent domain powers
OLYMPIA — Like so many immigrants to the United States, Henry Kubota sought the American dream: a piece of property; a business; a livelihood. He thought he found it in Seattle, purchasing the Seattle Hotel in 1941.
“Civil liberties and property ownership are the American dream that my family pursued. It was the pot at the end of the rainbow,” says Kubota’s son in-law, John Fujii. “But our slide down the rainbow hasn’t been without splinters. First, in 1942, the government hauled us to an internment camp. And in 2003, the Seattle Monorail Project sought to condemn more of our land than it needed for a monorail station.”
After losing a series of court cases that went all the way to the state Supreme Court, Fujii finally prevailed in 2005 – but only after voters killed the mismanaged Monorail project.
Today the site of the old Seattle Hotel is a triangular parking garage known as “the sinking ship garage.” Fujii hopes to realize his father in-law’s dream of developing an office building there. But he says that the monorail agency had different plans for his land – and those plans went far beyond building a transportation project. Public records show that prior to the condemnation, the monorail agency considered using a portion of Fujii’s property for a hotel and retail developments.
Fujii and other property owners joined Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna and a bipartisan band of legislators Thursday, as they announced legislation to rein in the government’s power to seize private property. Their announcement comes after more than two years of analysis by McKenna’s Eminent Domain Task Force, convened after a U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling known as the Kelo decision. Kelo upheld government’s authority to condemn private property in the name of economic development.
“The authority to confiscate homes and businesses is one of the most intimidating powers granted to government by the people,” McKenna said. “There must be limits to that power. One of those limits should be on the government’s authority to take your land, only to hand it over to private developers.”
McKenna added that while he supports economic development and the free market, the protection of individual liberties like property rights shouldn’t be infringed.
In Kelo v. City of New London, property owners challenged the city of New London, Conn., when city leaders sought to condemn 115 privately owned properties and use the land for hotels, shops, office space and other developments. The attorney general’s task force was organized to ensure that the property of Washingtonians is protected from similar land grabs.
AG McKenna and his allies have authored two sets of companion bills to reform government’s eminent domain laws. One proposal, HB 2425/SB 6200, would prohibit the taking of property for economic development – for example, to build a mall or a hotel.
“Building roads, hospitals and even monorails – that’s why government needs the power of eminent domain,” said Sen. Mike Carrell, R-Lakewood, the sponsor of SB 6200. “But government shouldn’t be in the business of taking one person’s private property and selling it to another private party. That’s fundamentally unfair.”
The companion bill, HB 2425, is sponsored by Rep. Jay Rodne, R-North Bend, and others.
HB 2423/SB 6199 would reform the state’s Community Renewal Law to restrict government’s ability to label entire neighborhoods as “blighted” in order to sell them to a private developer. The bill also restricts the use of eminent domain for economic development by limiting projects to specific public uses, such as roads and utilities, and barring projects developed simply to generate tax revenue.
According to the Washington Policy Center, local governments in Washington have applied or attempted to apply the Community Renewal Law to take the property of more than 71,000 Washington residents since 2000.
“If you’re living in a neighborhood that a city labels as ‘blighted, it usually means that you do not have the financial resources to make improvements or even fight the legal system,” said Sen. Rosa Franklin, D-Tacoma.
Sen. Franklin, who is sponsoring SB 6199, added that she hopes the bill will even out the fight between those without financial resources and well-heeled interests. The companion bill, HB 2423, is sponsored by Rep. Larry Springer, and others.
Pat Murakami says that in 2006 the city of Seattle considered designating a large part of southeast Seattle for redevelopment under its community renewal authority. Public records show that the city conducted a study, considered the use of a blight designation and pondered the use of eminent domain.
“Southeast Seattle was under the threat of being declared a blighted ‘Community Renewal Area’ after decades of neglect and underfunding by the city,” Murakami said. “We were told by city officials that they planned to purchase properties from existing property owners and sell them at a discount to private developers. This was distressing to our community, particularly our immigrant population, many of whom had left Communist countries because their property and ownership rights were not protected.”
Murakami and other activists mobilized the community and were able to delay any blight designation.
“Unless it happens to you, it’s tough to fully understand the stress involved in fighting to hold on to your home or business,” said Steve Appel, president of the Washington Farm Bureau. “But people need to recognize that unless the law is changed, this can happen to you – whether you’re a city dweller, a farm owner, or anywhere in between.”
Property owners available for interviews (Contact Janelle Guthrie for contact information, unless otherwise indicated):
- John Fujii, owner of “The Sinking Ship” garage.
- Pat Murakami and Ray Akers, who fought condemnation of “blighted” areas of Southeast Seattle.
- Howard McOmber, who battled the City of Renton, which attempted a broad rezone of the Renton Highlands for private redevelopment purposes.
- James and Doris Cassan, owners of Park N Fly, who are currently challenging the condemnation of their property by the City of SeaTac. Contact: Lee Keller, The Keller Group, (206) 799-3805.
Members of the AGO Eminent Domain Task Force available for interviews:
- Bill Maurer, Executive Director, Institute for Justice, Washington Chapter (425) 941-7905.
- Paul Guppy, Vice President, Washington Policy Center, (206) 937-9691.
- Dan Wood or Steve Appel, Washington Farm Bureau. Contact Mollie Hammar, (360) 528.2915.
- Tim Ford, Assistant Attorney General, Co-Chair, Eminent Domain Task Force, (360) 586-4802.
What people are saying about the AG’s property rights bills:
“Property owners should not have to worry that their government is going to take their land and give it to another private entity to develop,” said Rep. Lynn Kessler, D–Hoquiam, who is co-sponsoring both property rights bills. “Our laws and definitions regarding eminent domain need to have clear, indisputable protections for landowners so they don’t become victims.”
“Although for most of our nation’s history it has been clear the government cannot take private property for economic development, the U.S. Supreme Court undermined this fundamental principle in its Kelo decision,” said Rep. Jay Rodne, R-North Bend. “In response, House Bill 2425 strengthens private property rights as a matter of state law to ensure, clearly and without equivocation, that the government is prohibited from taking private property for economic development in Washington state.”
“While eminent domain is a necessary function for local government, we must protect property owners who are inadvertently caught up in eminent domain proceedings whether or not their property is considered blighted,” said Rep. Larry Springer, D-Kirkland. “The bill I am sponsoring, HB 2423, restricts Community Renewal Act eminent domain authority solely to blighted properties which pose a threat to public health and safety while protecting the rights of other nearby property owners.”
“Eminent domain abuse is about more than money and economics – it’s about respect,” said Paul Guppy, Vice President for Research, Washington Policy Center. “Restraining eminent domain power is about whether local officials show respect for the basic civil rights of ordinary people, so they don’t have to worry about someday losing their homes to the grand economic development plans of some mayor or city council member.”
“Washington’s Community Renewal Law is a powerful tool that often tempts municipalities into large-scale blight designations for the purpose of land assembly and economic redevelopment,” wrote Jeanette Peterson, staff attorney for the Institute for Justice Washington Chapter, in her report The Use and Abuse of Washington’s Community Renewal Law. “Washington’s (law) should be substantially revised to cover only concrete, objective harms presented by truly blighted property.”
Janelle Guthrie, AGO Communications Director, (360) 586-0725