Petitions to ban eminent domain submitted in Miss.

Published 8:09 am Friday, October 1, 2010

JACKSON (AP) — Mississippi government would be banned from taking private land for economic development ventures under a proposed state constitutional amendment that appears headed to the November 2011 statewide ballot.

Supporters say the plan would protect property rights, but opponents say it could squelch Mississippi’s chances of winning big projects.

The Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation on Thursday delivered petitions to the secretary of state’s office to try to put the eminent domain restrictions before voters next year — the same time people are electing a governor, other statewide officials, legislators and county office holders.

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Eminent domain is the process government uses to take private land for projects ranging from road construction to industrial development. Farm Bureau Federation President David Waide said he’s confident voters will approve the proposed ban on the process.

“The Founding Fathers of this country believed that there were three basic principles … the freedom of religion, the right to own property and the right to bear arms,” Waide said. “We in the Farm Bureau believe we don’t want to compromise those three basic principles. I don’t see where it’s going to affect economic development.”

In a separate interview, an economic promoter who helped bring a Toyota manufacturing plant to northeastern Mississippi disagreed.

Randy Kelley, director of the Three Rivers Planning and Development District, said eminent domain was used for the Toyota project to clear up titles for two parcels of land and to resolve mineral rights that were held by several people for other parcels.

Kelley said people were paid for their land and their mineral rights, but eminent domain proceedings were needed to get the land-title questions and the mineral-rights questions into court so a judge could resolve them.

Kelley said if eminent domain is banned, out-of-state land owners could refuse to sell or could demand unreasonably high prices for property in an area targeted for a big development. He said: “Do you want somebody from South Carolina or Atlanta or New York to have 10 acres in the middle of an area and block the whole project?”

In March 2009, Republican Gov. Haley Barbour vetoed a bill that would have almost eliminated the use of eminent domain to take land for private projects. Barbour said it was too broad and would’ve put Mississippi at a “catastrophic disadvantage in creating jobs and expanding our economy.”

Barbour later asked lawmakers to consider a less restrictive proposal that still would have allowed the use of eminent domain to take private land for public use such as highway construction or installation of utility lines. That proposal died.

Waide said the ballot initiative is stricter than what Barbour wanted.

Property rights groups across the nation have been pressuring lawmakers and governors to tighten restrictions on eminent domain in response to a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allowed a Connecticut town to condemn private property and take it for a private development.

Kelley said current Mississippi law puts checks and balances on eminent domain because elected officials must approve projects in which the process would be used.

“Mississippi is not a state that has abused it to go out and put up a 7-11 or a Walmart,” Kelley said.

Getting a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot requires at least 89,285 certified signatures of registered voters. Waide said the Farm Bureau Federation collected 119,251.

Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann said it could take weeks for his staff to verify the numbers.

“It’s quite an accomplishment to get to the level that you did today,” Hosemann told Farm Bureau supporters as 16 boxes of petitions were wheeled into a news conference at his office.

State law allows the Legislature to put an alternate proposal on the ballot for any initiative — so it’s possible that in the same election, voters would see two variations of eminent domain restrictions. That could make it more difficult for either proposal to pass.