Chills rippled from coast to coast last year when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the Constitution didn’t bar governments from condemning private property and giving it away to a developer to increase tax revenues.
Now, it appears some people are trying to take advantage of the public’s righteous outrage to overthrow smart land-use policies and judicious zoning codes that protect property values and ownership rights.
Republican state lawmakers are considering SCR1019, a referendum intended to add restrictions on the use of eminent domain. The bill would go even further by requiring governments to pay property owners if an unfriendly change in zoning or land regulations resulted in the short-term loss of property value.
A voter initiative campaign with nearly identical language was launched last week as part of a nationwide drive that already has swept in a new law in Oregon.
This is a one-size-fits-all approach that ignores the broad protections Arizona’s constitution already provides to property owners. Mesa’s Bailey Brake Shop case has established clear precedent that governments can take property only for traditional public uses, not to benefit one private owner over another.
Some tweaking of those protections might be needed to make it easier for a small business or homeowner to challenge the government’s actions in court. But consistent application of the standards established in the Bailey case should eliminate most abuses that occurred in the past. And we all should be suspicious of politicians who promise to help by adding more pages to the statute books.
To make matters worse, provisions of the proposed referendum and initiative would appear to wipe out modern zoning and land-use planning as we know it. The goal of these sections is to combat “down-zoning,” a situation in which local governments unilaterally change a land regulation and make the affected property more challenging to develop.
The measures include some exceptions, but their broad impact likely would prompt cities to stop trying to adjust their zoning rules to prevent future problems or to address concerns of existing property owners about what could move in next to them.
If the proposals already were in place, we would see the future of Williams Gateway Airport destroyed as Mesa is forced to accept miles of homes built under runway approaches. We would see cookie-cutter subdivisions dominate Chandler and Gilbert because housing diversity rules are nullified. We would see the desert beauty of north Scottsdale paved under as rules to preserve natural terrain never came to be.
We shouldn’t allow one bad Supreme Court decision to cause a political stampede that we will regret later.