Local effort on eminent domain fails to find votes


Not only has the touchy national issue of eminent domain failed to ignite a controversy in Howard County, the county's state legislators defeated a local bill last week attempting to tighten restrictions on the government's right to seize private property.

A national uproar erupted last year over a Supreme Court decision affirming the ability of government to take private property for private, economic development projects. Governments typically use the power to acquire land from unwilling sellers for direct public projects, such as highways, schools or parks.

The General Assembly is considering 43 bills on the subject, but Republican state Sen. Allan H. Kittleman was pushing a state constitutional amendment that would apply solely to Howard County.

Kittleman's bill, if approved, would have prevented county government from ever taking land for "urban renewal," even if the county, for example, wanted to acquire a vacant lot on U.S. 1 to aid a redevelopment project.

"Someone has a right to have a vacant property," Kittleman said at the delegation meeting in Annapolis Wednesday. The bill -- the delegation's last piece of local legislation -- failed, with support from only the 11-member delegation's four Republicans.

Earlier, the group unanimously approved a resolution urging "all parties" to help the Carroll family preserve Doughoregan Manor. The 18th-century mansion and surrounding 892 acres in Ellicott City are still owned by descendants of Charles Carroll of Carrolton, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence.

But the unity dissolved when Kittleman's bill came up for discussion.

Democrats, led by Del. Elizabeth Bobo, who heads a House subcommittee working on land-use issues, said that with all the bills submitted on the issue, it would make sense to see what legislation emerges from committee before trying to amend the state constitution just for Howard County.

"Our goal is to get uniformity throughout the state," Bobo said, and that would be better done by changing state law through the legislative process than by amending the state constitution.

County Executive James N. Robey, a Democrat who attended the meeting, also opposed Kittleman's bill.

"We rarely used [eminent domain], but I think any jurisdiction would want the tool to use in unusual circumstances," he said.

But Republican Del. Gail H. Bates worried that if one statewide standard for using eminent domain is adopted, it could be a more lenient standard than Howard County citizens would be comfortable with.

"That puts Howard County is a very bad position," Bates argued.

Bobo said she would strongly oppose a lenient standard. "That lenient use will not be there," she said.

Kittleman was not persuaded.

"I think property rights are so sacred they have to be in the constitution," he said, adding that he is pushing his bill as a local solution because "I don't see a [statewide] constitutional amendment coming out of the Senate. I think individual jurisdictions in Maryland should have the right to make it more restrictive if they want to," he said.

House delegation Chairman Shane E. Pendergrass said, "I don't see the urgency." If the eventual statewide bill does not satisfy, she said, a bill can be introduced next year. "We haven't had a problem in Howard County."

'Huge challenge'

Another newcomer to Howard County politics has bravely launched his Republican campaign for County Council against what even he admits are daunting odds in District 4, covering west Columbia south to Fulton.

Tom D'Asto, 39, an engineer and Cub Scout leader from Clarksville, at the district's western edge, spoke to about 40 people gathered in the reception room of the newly completed Evergreens apartments behind Nordstrom's at The Mall in Columbia on Sunday.

"I face a huge challenge, if you consider past voting patterns here in District 4," said a nervous D'Asto, after a warm introduction from County Council Chairman Christopher J. Merdon, the GOP's hope for capturing the county executive's seat this year.

Four years ago, a better-known Republican, Joan Lancos, former county Planning Board chairman, lost to novice Ken Ulman, a Democrat, who got 58.3 percent of the vote to her 41.6 percent in what is considered a bastion of Columbia's liberal Democrats.

This year, two Democrats -- school board member Mary Kay Sigaty, and Columbia Association board member Joshua Feldmark -- are seeking their party's nomination for council, since Ulman is running for county executive.

D'Asto, husband of a county teacher and father of three young children, is an 18-year county resident. He billed himself as a community-minded, youth sports coach who never sought a political career but became interested through his leadership of a Cub Scout pack.

"That experience really changed my outlook on what I wanted to do," he said.

"Development is not a bad word, but we need to be better prepared," he said, criticizing the downtown Columbia redevelopment as a "developer-driven process."

He said he is a fiscal conservative.

"I just don't see the need to collect and spend just because we live in the wealthiest county in the state," he said. Taxes should not go up, he said, because growth should be paying the costs of new schools and roads.


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