Alabama Brings Back Eminent Domain for Private Gain


Greg Willis | Wikimedia Commons

This month, Alabama Governor Robert Bentley signed into law a bill that allows local officials to condemn private property and turn it over to private developers.

Alabama's statutes had contained some of the best protections in the nation for property owners; officials couldn't seize property for private development unless it was a true threat to human health and safety.

Welcome back to the bad old days.

Advertised as a tool to attract industry to Alabama, the new law (the Major 21st Century Manufacturing Zone Act) expands tax subsidies for companies that open a manufacturing facility of at least 250 acres. It also allows municipal officials to seize property for "private uses and purposes imbued with a public interest" like auto factories, biomedical facilities, and pharmaceutical plants.

Officials can now condemn property they deem "blighted," which, since the statutory definition of the term is so subjective, could be nearly any property. Criteria include:

  • "deteriorating structures"
  • "inadequate street layout"
  • "faulty lot layout"
  • "obsolete platting"
  • "excessive vacant land"

In 2005, when the Supreme Court sanctioned condemnation for private development in Kelo v. New London, Alabama legislators were the first in the nation to react. The reform defanged urban renewal plans like this one from Tuscaloosa, where local officials authorized themselves to seize a broad swath of the downtown area. Until then, every property owner in the project area had faced the threat of eminent domain, regardless of whether their property was actually blighted—just being in the vicinity of a rundown property could trigger condemnation.

Alabama municipalities looking to attract industry would be wise to look not to the ruling in Kelo, but to the fate of New London after the decision. Pfizer Inc. left town after the subsidies that originally lured it to New London expired. And the neighborhood officials fought so hard to raze is now an illegal dumping ground.

The new law makes Alabama the second state to renege on strong eminent domain reform. (Utah stripped eminent domain powers from redevelopment authorities in 2005 only to partially restore them in 2007.)

In other Alabama news, legislators are scheduled to consider a bill this week that would make Alabama the last state in the nation to legalize home brewing. So there's that.