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Committee : Eminent domain unfairly targets the poor

By Johnny Jackson

A legislative committee brought its hearings to the battleground city of Stockbridge on Friday, and speaker after speaker urged Georgia's lawmakers to restrict the right of governments in the state to condemn people's property.

Some testified that the poor and those not in a financial position to fight the battle are the most vulnerable to being mistreated in a government's condemning of their property.

Stockbridge is the area battleground because it is the first area government to try to take private property for private use after the U.S. Supreme Court in a narrow margin earlier this year opened the door wide for this to happen.

Sen. Jeff Chapman, chairman of the Eminent Domain and Economic Development Study Committee, predicted that Georgia's lawmakers will move next year to tighten the rules for condemning private property.

”We believe that the general assembly will act quickly to close the loophole,“ he predicted.

”The use of eminent domain to increase tax revenue, I don't think people will stand for. For local government, which has this power, to be influenced by developers to misuse it is inherently wrong. It's an unfortunate position to be in for the citizen. Government, we are supposed to protect life and property.“

Stockbridge is now in court defending its condemnation of a popular flower shop for a new complex of mixed use, including some private development.

Stockbridge City Manager Ted Strickland said he strongly objects to others' allegations that the city misused its authority of eminent domain laws.

Strickland declined to add further comment since the city is in court over the issue.

Mark and Regina Meeks will head to Henry County Superior Court on Nov. 30, in a suit against the city of Stockbridge.

”We are claiming that the city acted in bad faith,“ Regina Meeks said.

A part of the suit has to do with the rezoning of the property without proper notification, she said.

Meeks owns Stockbridge Florists and Gift, which sits below Georgia Highway 138 near Highway 42, where it hides behind four lanes of busy traffic in the downtown area. The business has served Stockbridge more than 30 years, she said, 22 under her stewardship.

She pointed to a neighbor, Sarah Clary, co-owner of 30-year-old properties she alleged were affected by bullying tactics, a rhetorical issue also raised by senators on the study committee.

Chapman said the poor are easier targets for officials and developers looking to purchase private property to develop.

He said his legislation, approved by the Senate during the last legislative session, would effectively prevent local or state government from using eminent domain as a means to increase tax revenue or for the purpose of economic development.

He said he disagreed with the use of eminent domain as a means to increase tax revenue and economic development, because ideally and historically eminent domain has been used for public good only.

”Some people believe we should stimulate the economy at all costs,“ he said. ”But that (philosophy) would not allow the open market process to occur.“

Dawn Davis is a former planning and zoning commissioner for Henry County. She said she last voted as a commissioner against an application to develop multifamily dwellings on East Atlanta and Conyers roads.

”Eminent domain should have no place in redevelopment,“ Davis said. ”Eminent domain should only be used for the good of public use – public use definitely should be redefined. And the term 'blight' should not be used until there is a constitutional amendment.“

During the meeting, the term was used to describe property that is worthy of condemnation for the health and safety risks it poses to the public.

Matt Hicks, representing the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, urged that the definition of ”blight“ be redefined to only include environmental hazards to health and safety. He said he wanted to restrict the use of eminent domain to blighted properties.

Otherwise, he said, ”Eminent domain is and should be used as a last resort.“

Alfonso Maldry from DeKalb County stood in support of the study committee. One of several who attended the meeting, Maldry said his concerns surrounded the looming effects abuses to eminent domain have on minority communities.

Friday's half-day hearing at the Merle Manders Conference Center in Stockbridge was the second legislative hearing on the issue. Information gathered at the hearing will be shared with other members of the legislature which will have to vote on the issue next year.