In 2006, activists took to the streets to lobby for eminent domain reform following a Supreme Court decision allowing governments to seize property for economic development. Those reforms passed in Georgia, but a bill in the Legislature erodes some of those protections. FILE PHOTO

Eminent domain bill opens condemned land to private development

Georgia lawmakers Thursday approved allowinglocal governments to seize blighted property for economic development, altering eminent domain reforms passed more than a decade ago.

The changes in House Bill 434 worry those concerned that government officials will abuse the power.

“We see this as expanding eminent domain,” said Tochie Blad, a Sandy Springs Council of Neighborhoods board member. “How do you define blight? It is in the eyes of the beholder.”

House Judiciary Chairman Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, said the change will give cities more options in dealing with persistently blighted areas.

The bill has safeguards. For instance, for a government to seize property for an economic development project it has to prove to a judge that the property is blighted and property owners got their day in court to fight the accusation. If they lose, they can appeal the decision.

Once appeals are exhausted, the government can take the property by paying the owners “just compensation” for it and then sell the property to a private developer.

In 2006, Georgia voters signaled their overwhelming preference that governments not use eminent domain for private development, approving a related amendment to the state constitution by an 83 percent majority.

The bill now heads to Gov. Nathan Deal for his signature. For more about the bill and the fierce debate over governments seizing property for redevelopment, read this week’s AJC Watchdog column here.

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