Vital Policy – Property Rights Protection Bills Delayed by Special Interest Groups in Tennessee General Assembly

David Seal

For the second legislative session in a row, housing authority and community development agency lobbyists have persuaded state legislators to place property rights protection bills on the back burner. A bill filled in 2020 to prevent eminent domain proceedings against non-blighted property in a redevelopment area was opposed by Knoxville Community Development Corporation (KCDC). Speaking for KCDC in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the bill was KCDC CEO Ben Bentley. After Bentley’s remarks, multiple senators on the committee described property ownership as a sacred right and approved the bill despite Bentley’s objections. The bill was later shelved when the Covid-19 pandemic brought the general assembly to an early close, causing both the senate and house companion bills to expire.

Improved bills to prevent eminent domain abuse were filed in the current 2021 legislative session that would have added due process protections to property acquisition proceedings in blighted areas, authorized housing authorities to provide enhanced compensation for property acquisition of non-blighted property, redefined the existing definition of “blight” to a set of objective standards based on building code deficiencies, and would have prevented the taking of non-blighted property for private benefit by eminent domain. Critics of Tennessee’s eminent domain law include the Institute for Justice whose model legislation served as a template for the proposed legislation. Both Jefferson County Commission and the Board of Mayor and Aldermen of the City of Dandridge made resolutions ahead of the bill filings in support of protecting property rights. The proposed bills were opposed by multiple housing authorities.

House Bill 793 sponsored by Representative Dale Carr (R-Sevierville) was recently considered by the House Civil Justice Subcommittee but failed to garner enough support to advance. Representatives Rusty Grilles (R-Newbern), Bruce Griffey (R-Parris), and Brandon Ogles (R-Franklin) were co-sponsors. Representative Antonio Parkinson (D-Memphis) expressed support for the bill in committee, citing the likelihood that certain property owners may not have the financial resources to fight a property taking because the owner may be on a “fixed income”, and stated that once a property is taken from owner A and transferred to owner B that the new owner would greatly “benefit from a windfall” when the property is redeveloped, leaving the original property owner compensated at a depressed “market value”. Senator Frank Niceley sponsored the companion senate bill, SB 680. Officially, the proposed legislation is off notice until the next legislative session.

Housing authorities and development agencies in Tennessee, working in conjunction with cities and counties, can designate a redevelopment area as “blighted”, then subsequently condemn private property under the assumption of “blight” even though some properties in the “blighted area” are well kept, code compliant and owned by law abiding citizens. The “blight loophole” that permits such takings was created by the Tennessee General Assembly in 2006 with Public Act 863 in the wake of the landmark Kelo v. New London decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, a ruling that opened the door for abusive property takings.

Source: David Seal is a retired Jefferson County educator, 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, property rights, education, and broadband accessibility on the state level.