Pennsylvania Enacts Eminent Domain Reform

Some Municipalities Exempt from New Restrictions Until 2012

PRESS RELEASE: May 5, 2006

John Kramer
Lisa Knepper
(703) 682-9320

Arlington, Va.—Today, Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell is expected to sign into law Senate Bill 881, legislation that prohibits the use of eminent domain “to take private property in order to use it for private enterprise.”  Also known as the “Property Rights Protection Act,” SB 881 (sponsored by Senator Jeff Piccola) significantly tightens the definition of “blight” in the State’s eminent domain laws.  Providing most citizens with increased protection against condemnations for private profit, the bill unfortunately includes a glaring exception that allows certain municipalities to condemn property in areas that have already been designated as “blighted” under the State’s urban renewal laws.  Under the exemption, which expires in 2012, these municipalities cannot impose new blight designations under the old rules.  

“This bill provides strong protections for homes and businesses against the abuse of eminent domain for private development,” said Institute for Justice Senior Attorney Dana Berliner, who represents the plaintiffs in the Kelo v. City of New London landmark eminent domain case.  “Under Pennsylvania law, the government can no longer seize and bulldoze perfectly fine homes and businesses for the benefit of a private developer.  Essentially, a property has to be a danger to public health or safety to face the government’s wrecking ball.”

IJ Senior Attorney Scott Bullock, who argued Kelo before the nation’s highest court, agreed.  He added, “This is a big step forward because the old definition of ‘blight’ was so broad and vague that it applied to practically every neighborhood in the state.  ‘Blight’ in Pennsylvania is no longer whatever a developer or bureaucrat wants it to be.”

In addition to tightening the definition of “blight,” SB 881 also places time limits on blight designations.  Previously, the government could use blight studies dating back indefinitely to justify condemnations for private use.  Philadelphia, for example, has 73 redevelopment areas currently on the books, some of which are based on blight designations from the 1960s.

“It’s unfortunate the Legislature included so many exemptions in what is otherwise a solid piece of legislation,” Berliner added.  “People already living under the threat of eminent domain, and those in many neighborhoods of Philadelphia, Norristown, Pittsburgh and Delaware County, among others—places where many of the worst abuses in the state’s history unfolded—will remain without protection until 2012.  First, Philadelphia lobbied to be exempted, and then other municipalities demanded similar exemptions.  Your zip code shouldn’t dictate whether you have property rights; all Pennsylvanians deserve protection from eminent domain abuse.”

Since Kelo, Legislatures in 47 states have introduced, considered or passed legislation aiming to curb the abuse of eminent domain.  Pennsylvania is the 18th state to enact reform.

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