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Panel says no to suggested eminent domain charter amendment

The Charter Review Commission, in a 7-5 vote Thursday morning, decided not to recommend a charter amendment on eminent domain, leaving the future of councilman Greg Fox's resolution on the matter up in the air.

Regulations on eminent domain, the legal process by which a government can condemn land for public use, are not currently covered in the charter.

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Fox, a Fulton Republican, introduced a resolution in September to amend the charter to regulate the county's ability to use its power of eminent domain for economic development purposes.

He introduced the resolution to highlight concerns surrounding the redevelopment of the former Gateway School site in Clarksville. The county terminated an agreement this summer with a developer that was slated to buy the 7.8-acre parcel because of issues over access to the site. Fox and many Clarksville area residents believed the county was considering using its power of eminent domain to take land from private business owners to build an access road.

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The council voted Oct. 3 to table the resolution so the Charter Review Commission could weigh in on it.

The 15-member citizens commission is charged with identifying sections of the charter that need to be revised and recommending revisions to the council by May 1, 2012. Any changes the council votes to adopt will have to be affirmed by voters in the 2012 election.

At their final meeting Thursday, the commission debated whether a charter amendment on eminent domain was needed.

"The amendment that you proposed, I think we can both agree that that really isn't going to change things," commission member Tom Coale said to Fox.

Coale explained that he agrees with Fox's intention to use charter language to give property owners more backing for challenging an eminent domain case, but noted that regardless cases will end up being decided in court.

Fox's resolution was specifically aimed at preventing the government from using eminent domain to take land solely for economic development purposes. Commission member Josh Tzuker said he worries that a charter amendment could harm future cases.

"I don't know if we have the crystal ball to see every single project that might affect the well being of this county," he said.

Commission members Steve Hunt and former county executive Ed Cochran raised the point that the government condemnation process is outlined in the Howard County Code, and if changes need to be made, that's the document in which they should be done.

"There are remedies to fight (eminent domain written in the code), not just for the property owner," Hunt said.

Commission member James Walsh argued for having regulations on eminent domain in the charter, noting they would have more strength because any changes would have to be affirmed by the voters, as opposed to changing regulations in the code, which would only require approval from the council.

After the meeting, Fox said he thought the commission had a good discussion, and while he wished the vote had gone the other way, he thinks the members had good suggestions on how he could amend his resolution or come up with a new way in which to address eminent domain under county law.

Asked if he thinks the commission's vote will affect the way the other council members vote on his resolution, Fox said: "Don't know. I think it depends on what I come up with."

Council chairman Calvin Ball said he believes the commission's decision not to recommend Fox's resolution forward "is the right approach.

"And I have agreed with that position consistently," he said. Ball was the only council member to vote against tabling Fox's resolution. He did so because he didn't feel the resolution solved any issues and had planned on voting against it.

If Fox comes back to the council with a different approach, Ball said he would consider it.

The commission did decide at the meeting to recommend the charter be amended to clarify the process that should be followed when the county wants to make amendments to the capital budget after it already has been passed. The panel is recommending language that will say the council has to adopt language specifying the process to amend the budget, both for new and existing projects.

Fox, who had suggested the commission look at the section of the charter that discusses amending the budget, said the recommendation doesn't solve the issue but gives the council some flexibility.

"I'm not necessarily trying to accomplish anything other than to make it a little more clearer," he said.

The commission plans to submit all of its recommendations to the council by the end of January.

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