Jefferson County Commission Stands Up for Property Rights, State Legislators File Proposed Bills

After County Commission made a resolution on January 21, 2020 that aims to protect private property rights, bills were filed in the Tennessee General Assembly to better protect property owners from eminent domain that is initiated by government for private benefit and economic development. The framers of the constitution limited property takings to “public use” under the 5th Amendment. However, in recent decades, government has strayed from this limitation, allowing property takings for a variety of purposes, including blight remediation. A reform was enacted by the Tennessee Legislature in 2006 to reign in takings for private development, but inadvertently created a loophole having opposite results.

The loophole centers around the “blighted area” definition under which local government and housing authorities are authorized to condemn private property for the purpose of mitigating “blight”. “Blighted area” is so broadly defined under Tennessee law that well-kept, non-blighted, properties can be swept up and condemned along with deteriorated properties and subsequently turned over to private developers for upgrading and disposal. This loophole has triggered constitutional concerns. 

House Bill 1880 is proposed legislation intended to close the blight loophole, filed by Representative Dale Carr (R-Sevierville). The bill redefines “blighted area” such that non-blighted properties are safe from condemnation.  Senator Frank Niceley (R-Strawberry Plains), a well-known property rights advocate, has sponsored the corresponding Senate Bill, SB 2058. Niceley has sponsored successful legislation in past sessions to protect property rights.

HB 1880 is the third significant reform effort made in Tennessee to protect property rights since the Kelo v. New London, 545 U.S. 469 (2005) decision was made by the U.S. Supreme Court, the decision that broadened the takings power of government to include private development and benefit. Since Kelo, nearly every state assembly across the nation has scrambled to shield private property owners from eminent domain abuse.  In 2006, Public Chapter 863 became law, requiring that takings be for “public use” under the Tennessee and U.S. Constitutions, preventing property takings for private development, leaving some narrow exceptions. In 2017, after Jefferson County Commission made Resolution 2016-43, Public Chapter 422 was enacted by the Tennessee General Assembly, removing condemnation for industrial parks and requiring better compensation for land owners. The Institute for Justice considers Public Chapter 422 a victory for property rights, and encourages “more states to follow suit.”

Submitted by David Seal David is a long time educator in Jefferson County, as well as a recognized artist and local businessman. He has also served Jefferson County as a County Commissioner and is a lobbyist for the people on issues such as eminent domain and broadband accessibility on the state level.