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House approves eminent domain bills

The Washington State House of Representatives has forwarded two bills designed to protect private landowners against public agencies condemning and taking their land.

In a process also called eminent domain, government agencies are allowed under state and federal law to appropriate land from a property owner for a variety of reasons, most often for rights of way associated with highways or utilities.

The agency must pay the property owner fair market value, but several cases have been reported where agencies have taken advantage of the system, taking land and reselling portions to private parties for profit.

Rep. Larry Springer, D-Kirkland, is the prime sponsor of the House Bill 2016, which can be found at apps.leg.wa.gov/billinfo.

"This bill can't take away the pain some property owners experience during eminent domain proceedings," Springer said. "But it will make the process more fair for them."

Springer's bill has five main protections. It would provide guidelines for condemning entities to consider alternatives before settling on a certain property for eminent domain proceedings. The bill would allow property owners to recover more costs associated with having an appraiser evaluate their property. It would require a property owner subjected to eminent domain to be given written notice explaining the project's progress if the property hasn't been put to public use within five years and the former owner would be able to buy back the property if it is not used within seven years.

Eminent domain would be prohibited from being used to expand tax bases, increase employment in the area or to transfer to another entity or person under the bill.

"Courts that have ruled against property owners have made it necessary to pass protections now," Springer said. "We can take action this session to pass protections we know will strengthen property rights."

Rep. Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam, sponsored House Bill 2920, which would create an information pamphlet to address concerns expressed by citizens who are going through the eminent domain process. Often, the property owners are unaware of their options and the process.

"People can't protect their property if they don't know their options," Kessler said. "This pamphlet, written in plain language, will lay out eminent domain purposes and scope, as well as the rights of persons subject to eminent domain proceedings."

The office of the Attorney General would develop the pamphlet if the Senate approved the bill and Gov. Christine Gregoire signed the bill into law.

Both bills will go to the Senate next week for discussion and possible adoption.

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