City promises not to have a seizure over eminent domain

Count the Atlanta City Council among the local governments to have jumped on the bandwagon to condemn, um, the act of condemnation.

More specifically, on July 18 the council became the latest elected body to adopt a resolution pledging not to abuse its eminent domain power, following Cherokee, Coweta and Henry counties. A host of other metro counties — Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Forsyth — are considering similar measures in the wake of a controversial June 23 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court clearing the way for local governments to use property condemnation as an economic development tool.

Lost amid the fuss is the fact that none of the resolutions carry the force of law; that is, they actually do nothing to legally restrict the ability of governments to take private property. Nor do most of them define what is meant by a "public purpose," the litmus test used to determine when condemnation can properly be undertaken. That's the role of state lawmakers, says Fulton Commission Chairwoman Karen Handel.

Handel concedes the Fulton resolution is a "stopgap measure" intended to reassure nervous county residents until the state provides more guidance on the limits of eminent domain. The irony, of course, is that state GOP leaders, including Sen. Eric Johnson, R-Savannah, this past January introduced Senate Bill 5, which would have made it easier for local governments to seize land at the suggestion of private developers — effectively the same outcome achieved by the High Court's decision.

While acknowledging the irony, Handel says she is confident that Gov. Sonny Perdue, while previously a backer of SB5, will stick up for personal property rights.

Drafted by veteran Atlanta Councilwoman Clair Muller — who, perhaps not coincidentally, faces a re-election challenge this fall — the city's measure approved promises that the city "does not intend to employ the power of eminent domain solely for the purpose of improving tax revenue or expanding the tax base."

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