As part of the plan for the future of downtown Wichita, the city council was asked to formally disavow the use of eminent domain to take private property for the purpose of economic development. The council would not agree to this restriction.
Susan Estes noted that the legislative agenda that the city council passed earlier in the meeting supported “home rule and local control as the most valid solution for recurring legislative issues.” High on the list of these issues is eminent domain.
Estes asked that the city adopt a statement that the city will not use eminent domain to take property for someone else’s use.
Answering her, Mayor Carl Brewer said it is the council’s record not to use eminent domain. “But,” he said, the city needs that opportunity and flexibility. He said that the city has been asked by developers to use eminent domain, but they’ve resisted. Nonetheless, he described it as one of the tools that is available to the city.
Council member Janet Miller said that the Kansas legislature has placed restrictions on eminent domain, which she characterized as a prohibition.
While Miller is correct — the Kansas legislature would have to pass a statute authorizing specific use of eminent domain, and the law is now more in favor of property owners than in the past — that protection, in my opinion, is weak.
We can easily imagine a scenario where a developer — promising a grand development — wants a large tract of land, perhaps a city block or more. The mayor and others will travel to Topeka and testify that the city desperately needs the jobs and tax revenue the development will create. (Forgetting the fact that the development will probably be in a tax increment financing district and therefore not contributing increased tax revenue to the city’s general government.) The city’s lobbyist will work the halls, a case of a taxpayer-paid lobbyist working against the interest of taxpayers. The case will be made to other lawmakers that if they ever want to use eminent domain in their home towns, they’d better vote for Wichita’s request. Other forms of legislative logrolling will be in full behind-the-scenes use.
So now property owners, instead of having to contest the city’s lawyers before a judge, have to lobby the entire legislature. The case — instead of being heard in a forum where the rule of law is respected — will be contested in a political body which in many cases has shown us that it cares little for private property rights.
This was a moment in time where the city council could have taken leadership in protecting property owners from eminent domain abuse. The city — particularly Mayor Brewer and Council Member Miller — failed to grasp the importance of protecting this form of liberty and economic freedom.