Florida Amendment 8 - Eminent Domain

TAMPA -

Nationwide - of the hundreds of statewide ballot measures this fall - questions over property rights are by far the most popular.

Stateline-dot-org reports that Florida is one of 13 states with measures seeking to limit the government's power to seize private property - known as eminent domain.

Property rights are a popular ballot item because this is the first election since the US. Supreme Court ruled it is okay for government to take privately owned land for redevelopment by the private sector. The Connecticut case - Kelo vs. The City of New London - was decided last year.

MARKS: The real question as I see it is the difference between urban renewal on the one hand and what went on in Kelo on the other.

Professor Thomas Marks Jr. teaches Florida Constitutional Law at Stetson University in Gulfport.

MARKS: In Kelo, the property was not blighted of course the government just figured that since it was along the river that they could condemn it and sell it to the private sector to do various things which would raise the tax base.

He says in the 1950s, the Florida Supreme Court initially ruled the use of eminent domain for urban renewal was unconstitutional - but then reversed itself.

MARKS: The question is, and I don't know the answer, but the question is would the amendment or the legislation go so far as to say you couldn't even use this for urban renewal. That's what really bothers me because I don't know the answer. And, again, I have not looked at the legislation. But, it seems to me if there's not an exception built in for urban renewal, then we've got a problem. How do you get rid of blighted areas?

Amendment 8 - if passed - would allow the transfer of seized land to private developers - if approved by a 60 percent vote in both the state house and state senate.

Florida Chamber of Commerce Executive Vice President Mark Wilson favors Amendment 8.

WILSON: A better title for Amendment 8 - if you wanted to be very accurate - a better title would have been protection from eminent domain. We're concerned as we travel Florida and talk to voters and ask them about all of these constitutional amendments, there's a lot of confusion surrounding Amendment 8 because it's titled Eminent Domain. That's what voters will see. When in reality the amendment is protection from eminent domain.

Wilson says business leaders see the constitutional amendment as protection against judicial rulings like the Kelo case.

WILSON: I believe the attempt behind Amendment 8 is is to strengthen the eminent domain laws in Florida so as to say not even the Supreme Court can take your property away just because the government thinks there's a better use for it.

Florida lawmakers passed laws this spring restricting the use of eminent domain. In fact, the new statutes are posing a problem for Michael Brown, Mayor of Riviera Beach.

The predominately black, low income community established the Riviera Beach Community Redevelopment Agency more than five years ago. The CRA identified blighted neighborhoods and drew up plans for their revitalization.

BROWN: People need to realize that CRA boards were created by the legislature for purpose of helping to eliminate blight in impoverished areas like ours. So in effect, all of the CRAs that have been impacted by this new change in law were acting under a law that the Florida Legislature had encouraged and authorized all of us to utilize to eliminate blight, to increase jobs, to eliminate poverty in our community.

He says the CRA's power to use eminent domain is an incentive that attracts private developers. Brown feels betrayed by the legislature's new restrictions. The mayor also is an attorney and believes Riviera Beach's redevelopment plans are grandfathered in - meaning the new laws or a new amendment should not apply. He thinks lawmakers did not think ahead.

BROWN: What would happen if one of the four hurricanes that have hit my community over the past two years destroyed a large portion of this blighted, impoverished area and we needed to rebuild this area. If the government doesn't have the power of eminent domain, you would never have this community rebuilt.

He also finds flaws with Amendment 8.

BROWN: In our case this amendment that they're speaking of which by the way I disagree with because if you look at it all these exceptions that they put in, the politicians excepted no eminent domain - except you can build baseball stadiums, you can build football stadiums. So obviously, you see that the lobbyists who are in touch with the legislature who have the money to get their exemptions have gotten their exemptions.

University of Florida political science professor Daniel Smith says that Florida law already offers property owners protection and that Amendment 8 was not necessary.

SMITH: It's called politics. This is symbolic politics at its best. It's the same thing we can say with respect to gay marriage measures that are on the ballot. We already have statutes. They're not being challenged. They're not being overturned. It's symbolic politics and this was the state legislature's effort to say we're not only changing it in law, we're changing our constitution.

Florida Constitutional Law Professor Marks has not taken a position on Amendment 8. He says it's up to the voters to decide if it cures a problem or goes too far.

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