Protection needed from eminent domain amendment proposed

By Walter Bradley: Guest columnist

Since last year’s infamous U. S. Supreme Courts decision, Kelo v. City of New London, citizens across the nation have declared in no uncertain terms their support for private property rights and opposition to the use of eminent domain for private gain.

Eminent domain is the power of the government to take private property against the owner’s wishes. Our state and federal constitutions restrict that power only to circumstances where the government is taking the private property for “public use.”

In Kelo, however, the U.S. Supreme Court redefined “public use” and allowed the government to condemn property to take from one private owner and hand it directly to another private interest.

Shortly before the one-year anniversary of Kelo, Gov. Bill Richardson convened a task force to study the issue of eminent domain in the Land of Enchantment. Although Kelo now allows for eminent domain abuse under the federal constitution, the task force members came together to study whether current law in New Mexico allows for eminent domain abuse and, if so, what could be done to fix New Mexico’s laws and protect our citizens’ private property rights.

Alarmingly, we discovered some of New Mexico’s eminent domain laws are so broadly written that every property in the state is at risk for a Kelo-like taking. Local governments are free to use New Mexico’s incredibly broad condemnation authority to take virtually any property in the state and hand it over to private developers.

While most people recognize the need for eminent domain to accomplish traditional public uses, such as schools, roads, utilities and so on, based on the public comments our task force received, the overwhelming majority (99 percent) of our citizens made their position undeniably clear: New Mexico should respect the rights of individuals to keep what they have worked so hard to own, and should protect its citizens from eminent domain abuse.

New Mexicans are not alone in this situation. This fall, voters passed all of the 10 proposed ballot measures solely reforming state eminent domain laws. All told, 34 states have seen fit to better protect their citizens from the use of eminent domain for private profit.

I am pleased to report the majority of the task force recommended to the governor that New Mexico’s Metropolitan Redevelopment Act be amended to prohibit the use of eminent domain for private economic development.

This is the only New Mexico law that allows use of eminent domain, and has been used, purely for economic development purposes. To ensure that our citizens’ rights will be protected in the future, the task force unanimously agreed that certain procedural protections should be adopted as well. The task force made the following recommendations to Gov. Richardson and our state Legislature:

—Clearly prohibit the power to use eminent domain for private economic development purposes by removing it from the Metropolitan Redevelopment Act.

n Rewrite the New Mexico Metropolitan Redevelopment Act to remove existing language that indicates the interests of private developers outweigh the interests of the private property owners.

—Increase notice and hearing requirements so property owners have earlier notice and a more secure opportunity to participate in the decision-making and planning process.

The governor has already voiced his support of our recommendations. It is my hope the Legislature will respect the rights of New Mexico’s citizens and take the opportunity the upcoming legislative session provides to ensure our citizens will be protected from eminent domain abuse in the years to come.

Walter Bradley is a former lieutenant governor of New Mexico and was a member of the Governor’s Task Force on Eminent Domain. Call him at 763-4528.