Speed not conceding fight against eminent domain limits

Things haven’t been going Leland Speed’s way in his court challenges to a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would curb Mississippi’s power to take private property for large economic development projects

But don’t look for Speed, a real estate executive and interim Mississippi Development Authority chief, to walk away from the fight. “I’m inclined to go forward,” said Speed, a week after the Mississippi Supreme Court declined to halt a statewide referendum on whether limits should be placed on the state’s authority to take private property for private purposes. Speed argued that the process by which the amendment reached the ballot violates the Bill of Rights clause in the state’s constitution.

The high court, in reviewing a Circuit Court ruling that went against Speed, said in a 7-2 decision would be willing to reconsider Speed’s arguments if the amendment passes. The court essentially ruled that it has no jurisdiction over the matter, since no change to state law has yet been made.

Luther Mumford, Speed’s lawyer, said he thinks the ruling left room for continuing the challenge.

Deadline pressures for the state to prepare absentee ballots led the court to make a less-than-definitive ruling, said Mumford, a Phelps Dunbar attorney.

He said he won’t move for a rehearing but is prepared to renew the challenge after the referendum if Speed asks him to do so.

Speed said it seems to him the Supreme Court was “kicking the can down the road a ways.”

The ballot initiative calls for forcing state and local governments to wait 10 years after they acquire public property before allowing a private sector use of the property.

Supporters say that without a constitutional change Mississippi’s eminent domain policy defaults to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 6-year-old Kelo v. City of New London ruling in which it upheld the power of government to condemn private property on behalf of private enterprise. The ruling too broadly interpreted what constitutes a “public purpose” and left property owners vulnerable to seizure of their land, say Mississippians who favor new restrictions.

That view, according to Speed, represents an over-reaction. He insists Mississippi would use eminent domain on behalf of the private sector only to attract mega-employers.

“We have had no complaints of anyone having had their property rights violated,” said Speed, who filed suit as a private citizen and not as executive director of the Mississippi Development Authority, the state’s economic development arm.

Had the eminent domain restrictions been in place a few years ago, Mississippi would not have landed the Toyota plant set to open next month in Blue Springs.

“Those 3,800 people wouldn’t have those jobs,” he said.

With the restrictions in place, Mississippi will have difficulty competing with the likes of Alabama, Tennessee and Arkansas for large manufacturing plants.

However, the Castle Coalition, a nationwide group fighting what it terms “eminent domain abuse,” gives Alabama a “B+” for protecting property against eminent domain.

Though Alabama has attracted automobile manufacturers such as Mercedes and Hyundai, it was the first state to react legislatively to protect “against the use of eminent domain for private profit,” the Castle Coalition says.

The legislation specified eminent domain could not be used for “private retail, office, commercial, industrial, or residential development; or primarily for enhancement of tax revenue; or for transfer to a person, nongovernmental entity, public-private partnership, corporation, or other business entity.”

The coalition gave Tennessee a “D-“ and “Fs” to Arkansas and Mississippi.

The coalition attributes Mississippi’s flunking grade to Gov. Haley Barbour’s 2009 veto of “a strong bill passed both houses with overwhelming bipartisan support. “

Regardless of how the referendum goes, the next governor will adhere to the restrictions. Both Republican Phil Bryant and Democrat Johnny Dupree have endorsed the limits called for in the ballot initiative.

That means Speed’s replacement at the MDA will be competing for mega-employers without the latitude to use eminent domain to assemble larger tracts that could include private parcels.

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