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Barbour: Eminent domain bill would hurt job creation

Private land versus public use

Amid all the budget-related issues in a session where lawmakers are watching the state’s revenues dwindle with every new projection, a politically emotional argument has broken out: that of the rights of private property owners versus the overall public good.

Three different pieces of legislation that deal with eminent domain are winding their way through the Capitol. Each would restrict the power of the government to seize private land only for public use — to build things such as roads, bridges and utilities.

Under current Mississippi law, eminent domain may be used for public use and for major economic development projects. The current law came about after a 2005 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that said government could forcefully purchase private land for private economic development purposes.

Separate bills removing that power in Mississippi have cleared the House and Senate, with bipartisan support. A third that seeks to insert an amendment into the state constitution banning eminent domain use for economic development is stuck in the House on a motion to reconsider.

Referring to the bill that cleared the Senate, Gov. Haley Barbour said it “would be a major impediment to Mississippi’s job creation efforts. Toyota would not be coming to Mississippi if this had been the law in 2007, and the senators recognized that fact by an amendment they included in the bill.”

An amendment that would have exempted from the restriction major economic development projects the Mississippi Development Authority could certify would create at least 1,000 jobs failed.

“It put the communities in the hole when they’re trying to figure out what they can sell,” said Duane O’Neill, president of the Greater Jackson Chamber Partnership. The state and private landowners fought in court over land for the Nissan plant in Canton before the state, with its power of eminent domain, prevailed.

When the state was in deep negotiations with Toyota, several scenarios arose concerning the shape and size of the Wellspring “mega site” that could have killed the project if the state had not had eminent domain power, said MDA executive director Gray Swoope.

“It does hinder our ability to be successful on some of these mega projects,” Swoope said.

No one’s house is in danger of being taken for a small project like a movie theater or a shopping mall — as was the case in Connecticut. Rather, Swoope said, most of the scenarios that involve the state having to exercise its eminent domain authority involve tweaking a site’s size and shape, growing a buffer zone or moving a railroad, and not seizing a family farm. Most of the land taken is a small plot with no home on it whose land records reach back so far and are so complicated it would be impossible to locate the proper owner without eminent domain power.

“I think you will find in Mississippi that our professionals are very conservative in our views on the use of eminent domain,” Swoope said. “At the end of the day, there may be a few parcels that hey, guess what, there in part of the buffer zone there is an abandoned church nobody has met in in a decade and we can’t find out who owns it. We’re left with no choice (but to use eminent domain). Current legislation will not allow us to do things like that.

“Nobody wants to go through this. But every now and then, you will have a case that is a deal-killer if you can’t pull off a little piece of property that has an absentee landowner.”

House and Senate negotiators will have to hammer a few differences in each chamber’s bill before it would head to Barbour’s desk.

Barbour spokesman Dan Turner said the governor “would wait until the details” of any bill is finalized before making deciding whether to veto it.

Contact MBJ staff writer Clay Chandler at clay.chandler@msbusiness.com .

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