Legislature sets state standards for blight


COLUMBUS - In its rush to leave town for the summer, the Ohio General Assembly yesterday voted to prevent local governments from condemning nonblighted private property for economic development gain.

In a divided vote, a bill establishing standards for governments to follow when deciding what constitutes blight won bipartisan support in both chambers.

But Democrats in the House killed a related plan to put a proposed constitutional amendment on the November ballot to require all levels of government to follow that single statewide standard. A supermajority of 60 votes was needed in the House to put the issue on the ballot. It fell short by four.

Cities opposed the amendment as an infringement on their constitutional home-rule authority. It may ultimately fall to the courts to decide whether cities would be subject to the same rules applied to the state, townships, and their related boards and commissions.

"Ohio voters are being denied the opportunity to choose how they think eminent domain should be used," said the resolution's sponsor, Sen. Kevin Coughlin (R., Cuyahoga Falls). "Instead, we are leaving it up to government to decide when it is appropriate to take someone's home or farm. This is flat out wrong."

The amendment would have prohibited governments from arguing that property could prove more lucrative to the community if employed for another purpose.

"In the entire history of our task force on eminent domain, the only possible abuse we saw was eminent domain abuse by cities in Lakewood and in Norwood," Rep. Bill Seitz (R., Cincinnati) said.

The rules sent to Gov. Ted Strickland establish a list of health, safety, and structural criteria to be considered when deciding what constitutes blight and requires that at least 70 percent of properties meet the definition before a government could take an entire neighborhood.

Both measures were pursued in reaction to a 2005 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in a Connecticut case that nothing in the federal Constitution prohibits the taking of nonblighted private property exclusively for economic development purposes.

The Ohio Supreme Court later ruled in a case involving the Cincinnati suburb of Norwood that the Ohio Constitution does provide such protection. But it left the door open for economic development to play a role.

In other action, the House and Senate, in a nod to the sports fishing industry, voted overwhelmingly to crack down on commercial fishing operations if they exceed their catch quotas.

"This particular bill, however well-intentioned, creates the death of the commercial fishing industry through a thousand cuts," Rep. Chris Redfern (D., Catawba Island) said. The bill allows the state to revoke the fishing licenses of those convicted of certain crimes. The House, however, added a grandfather clause to prevent the revocation of existing permits if the crimes were committed prior to the permit's issuance.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Tim Grendell (R., Chesterland), is partly a reaction to a state raid of the Lake Fish Co. in Sandusky that led to criminal prosecutions against 11 people. An estimated 40 tons of yellow perch worth $1 million had been poached from Lake Erie.

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