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Maine Lawmaker Seeks More Eminent Domain Protections for Landowners
02/05/2013   Reported By: Jay Field

A long-running battle over a possible east-west highway in Maine is the driving force behind a proposed amendment to the state Constitution. The amendment would give property owners more protections when the state comes in and seizes their land under eminent domain. It's being proposed by a state senator in a tough spot. Republican Doug Thomas's district is right in the path of where an east-west highway might go. Thomas, who supports at least exploring the idea, has been tageted politically by groups and individuals opposing the project. Jay Field reports.

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Beginning last spring, opponents of an east-west highway - including many constituents in Doug Thomas's Somerset County district - began worrying aloud about the eminent domain question. In public meetings on the proposed roadway, they claimed the state would be forced to take land around the proposed route and hand it over to construction giant Cianbro, despite the company's assurances that it wouldn't need to exercise eminent domain to build the highway.

This unease reached a tipping point in August. Thomas - under attack from project opponents and facing a re-election fight - convinced Gov. Paul LePage to delay an economic study on the roadway until he could introduce a bill to prevent the state from using eminent domain to take land.

"Should people have to live in fear for years and years and years that their property is going to be taken and they're going to be given nothing for it?" he asks.

Sen. Thomas says no. He's sponsoring LD 58. The bill proposes amending the Maine Constitution to put some restrictions on eminent domain. Thomas was sick and unable to attend Tuesday's initial public hearing on his bill, before the Legislature's Judiciary Committee.

"if it we're up to me, I'd do away with eminent domain altogether," he says in a telephone interview. "But you can't. But we've definitely got to stop abusing it and this is a good place to start."

Under the measure, the state has five years to use property for the purpose it was taken for. When the five years is up, the state must then offer up the land to the original owner or heirs at fair market price, before the property can be transferred to a person, non-profit or corporation for use on some other project.

"My name is Eliza Donahue. I'm a resident of Farmington, Maine. And I'm speaking on behalf of the Natural Resources Council of Maine. We are concerned that eminent domain may be used to acquire land for the purpose of the proposed east-west highway corridor."

Donahue and the Natural Resources Council testified in favor of Thomas's bill, but expressed concern that it doesn't go far enough. Donahue says her group opposes the language in the bill that allows the state to transfer property for use on other projects, once the original owners or heirs have taken a pass on the land.

"That would appear to be a potential loophole and we urge that it be removed," Donahue said.

The group representing Maine's cities and towns would like to see the whole bill go away. Geoff Hermon is with the Maine Municipal Association.

"Municipalities don't use eminent domain very much," he said. "But when they do, it's typically the taking of small slivers of property that are immediately adjacent to an existing right of way."

Hermon says town and cities often take multiple small slivers of land to enlarge or redesign a road in some way. Hermon says amending the Maine Constitution to require that taken property be used for its intended purpose in only five years would handcuff his clients and prevent key upgrades to infrastructure.

"It is not uncommon for a significant road-widening operation to take much longer than five years. Five years is not a long period of time," he said. "And if you're talking about something as complicated as a bypass or a significant re-alteration of highway, five years is an instant."

Officials from Cianbro did not testify at Tuesday's hearing. Sen. Thomas will get a chance to push for his bill when the Judiciary Committee holds another public hearing on the measure in the coming days.



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