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Two somewhat contradictory bills are floating in Springfield that would change the power of eminent domain, or the taking of property without the owner's consent. And the changes could immediately affect at least four Central Illinois cities - Normal, Champaign, Urbana and Pekin.

One bill is fueled by a Connecticut case that wound up in the U.S. Supreme Court and a ruling that New London had the power to acquire residential property and turn the property over to private developers. It was supposedly done to clean up an area that was on the verge of being blighted. The Supreme Court said states are free to restrict the use of eminent domain. And that is what is happening. Four states have already passed laws restricting use of eminent domain, and Illinois is among an estimated 40 considering changes. It's an issue of private property rights.

The bill says local government and schools can only use eminent domain for public purposes, not for economic development. It provides exceptions for "blighted" property without really defining what "blighted" means. Until that is cleared up, the bill should not be approved.

The second bill proves that how you are affected depends upon which side of the bread is buttered. It would allow cities - Champaign, Urbana and Pekin specifically - to use eminent domain to force a private water company supplying their water to sell the operation to the cities without approval from the Illinois Commerce Commission, as now required. Illinois American Water owns water operations in all three cities and opposes the legislation. None of the cities has voted to buy its water operator out.

Cities should not have that kind of leverage against a private company.

There is no doubt use of eminent domain to acquire property has been abused. It was intended for such things as acquiring rights of way for roads and streets. But cutting off its use without exceptions that could benefit communities is not the answer. The Legislature should use a scalpel not a cleaver.

Cities have been able to use eminent domain in TIF districts and conservation districts. TIF districts are defined as areas that contain blight, while the conservation districts are on the verge of becoming blighted. Normal has considered the downtown area as a conservation district.

Using eminent domain doesn't always mean property is taken that owners don't want to sell.

Normal has used the eminent domain law in its downtown redevelopment to let a court decide the value of land when the town and the landowners can't agree on a price. That same procedure could ultimately be used on pending transactions to buy downtown property. How proposed changes in the state law would affect Normal's plans are uncertain, according to Corporation Counsel Steve Mahrt.

Private property rights must be protected, but lawmakers must be careful not to go too far and interfere with projects that could enhance communities, such as Normal's downtown redevelopment.


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