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Consequences of Nov. 8 property rights vote huge

While initiatives calling for voter ID anddefining the start of life have received more attention, themeasure on the Nov. 8 ballot with perhaps the most far-reachingconsequences involves eminent domain.

    Initiative 31, if approved, would restrict the government’s abilityto take private property from individuals and transfer the propertyto another owner. On the ballot, the question will be put beforevoters as, “Should government be prohibited from taking privateproperty by eminent domain and then transferring it to otherpersons?”

    According to a summary from the Secretary of State’s Office, theinitiative “would amend the Mississippi Constitution to prohibitstate and local government from taking private property by eminentdomain and then conveying it to other persons or private businessesfor a period of 10 years after acquisition. Exceptions from theprohibition include drainage and levee facilities, roads, bridges,ports, airports, common carriers, and utilities. The prohibitionwould not apply in certain situations, including public nuisance,structures unfit for human habitation, or abandoned property.”

    Proponents of the measure, such as the Mississippi Farm BureauFederation, maintain the issue is one of property rights andpreventing citizens from being “forced” to sell their land forpurposes that are not purely government-related. Mississippi’sInitiative 31 movement is the latest in string of attempts inseveral states to combat a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in aConnecticut case that upheld the government’s use of eminent domainfor economic development-related purposes.

    The list of exceptions to the proposed law must be emphasized.Eminent domain could still be used for needed roads, bridges,utilities and similar government functions.

    Where opponents, such as Gov. Haley Barbour, find the initiativehard to swallow is in the detrimental impact it would have oneconomic development. They maintain that Mississippi would not havethe Canton Nissan plant – and the thousands of jobs it and itsspinoff plants created – if Initiative 31 had been in effectseveral years ago.

    One of the difficult questions to answer here is, “How much of agovernment function is economic development?”

    Certainly, government plays a major role in creating conditions -from tax structures to quality of life measurements – that can behelpful or harmful in a community’s ability to attract prospectivebusinesses and industries. Having a hand in finding and acquiringland for those entities seems to be a logical step in theprocess.

    By prohibiting governmental entities from transferring acquiredproperty to a prospective business or industry for 10 years,Initiative 31 would effectively prevent government involvement inputting together tracts of land for big projects like the Nissanplant. Without the option of eminent domain, such projects would bestalled for the sake of a single landowner or handful of owners whorefused to see the “big picture” benefits of new development.

    The counter to that argument – and the reason eminent domain can besuch an emotional issue – is that property ownership is not a “bigpicture” proposition, but a personal and private one for manyfamilies. Being “forced” to give up land that perhaps has been inthe family for decades or longer is not something they want tothink about happening.

    The possibility of extremes in both cases must be acknowledged.

    Land acquired via eminent domain is not simply “taken.” Propertyowners are paid a fair market value for the needed land inquestion.

    A landowner refusing to sell because of wanting more money than theproperty is worth can be seen as taking an obstructionist stancerather than merely holding on for the sake of sentiment. On theflip side, taking of property via eminent domain must be forsignificant and justifiable reasons.

    In general, though, the “vicious cycle” aspect of the eminentdomain debate can easily be seen.

    Landowners have a right to enjoy their private property in thecommunities they call home. But those communities will not grow -but will eventually stagnate and deteriorate – if land is notavailable for new development.

    On which side of the political and emotional fence will Mississippivoters stand? We will find out Nov. 8.