Attorney General Task Force to Review Washington Eminent Domain Laws - House Majority Leader Will Sponsor Bipartisan Reform Bill

Washington Policy Center Report

Jan. 4, 2007

Seattle - Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna will create a task force to review Washington's eminent domain laws and recommend changes for the 2008 legislative session to better protect property owners from abuse, he announced yesterday. And the bipartisan effort for legislative reform picked up steam as House Majority Leader Kessler (D-Hoquiam) announced that she will sponsor a reform bill requested jointly by Attorney General McKenna and Governor Christine Gregoire to provide greater notice to property owners threatened by eminent domain.

McKenna's goal is to establish a balanced task force that will seek ways to reduce the threat of eminent domain abuse without interfering with legitimate exercises of the government's ability to condemn property for legitimate public uses.

The proposed reform bill would open up the essentially secret meetings where local governments decide to use eminent domain. Right now, property owners can only find out about such meetings by seeking out postings on obscure government websites. The reform bill would provide citizens whose property is threatened with direct personal notice of the meetings where the fate of their property could be decided.

Attorney General McKenna said, "People shouldn't be expected to click through a series of Web pages every week to protect their property from being considered for condemnation. Condemnations are critical decisions that can affect people's homes and businesses, and this legislation ensures that property owners receive timely notice that such an important decision is being considered. If even one contentious condemnation is avoided, this bill will pay for itself many times over."

"Ultimately, including property owners in the decision making process is about respect," said Representative Kessler. "This bill opens up the process for home and business owners to participate. And while fixing the process is important, we shouldn't lose sight that still more work needs to be done to protect Washington's home and business owners."

The announcements came during a press conference introducing the new Washington Policy Center (WPC) study, "A False Sense of Security: The Potential for Eminent Domain Abuse in Washington State," which documents shortcomings in Washington's statutes that allow the government to abuse its eminent domain power.

William Maurer, the author of the Policy Brief and executive director of the Institute for Justice Washington Chapter, said that too many Washington statutes allow governmental agencies to act beyond the restrictions in the Washington Constitution.

McKenna agreed and said the Policy Brief "demonstrates that while our Constitution protects Washington residents from the exact same kind of abuses evidenced in the Kelo case, there is still plenty of room for improvement when it comes to eminent domain reform."

On hand at the press conference were three Washington property owners that have experienced, or are experiencing, abuse of the government's eminent domain power. Their experiences are also documented in the Policy Brief:

  • Kwan Fong, an immigrant from mainland China is building a business in Southeast Seattle, but the City of Seattle is considering declaring much of the Rainier Valley - including his property - "blighted" under Washington's Community Renewal Law. Under that Law, the government can declare perfectly fine neighborhoods "blighted," condemn the property, and transfer it to private developers. "I [lived] twenty-four years in a Communist country," Fong explained. "I [had] no freedom, no nothing. So I said [I would] come over [to] America. I said, 'Freedom. This is my country.' But how can they take it away from me [and] give it to a big company?"
  • Carol Colleran recounted how her family property in Burien, owned with her sisters, was targeted by bureaucrats because it was not upscale enough for the City's "vision." A City official urged planners to "make damn sure" a road went through the sisters' building, then condemned it.
  • John Fujii, whose family owns the Sinking Ship parking garage in Seattle's Pioneer Square, saw his business permanently condemned by the Seattle Monorail, when it only needed the property temporarily. The Monorail hoped to sell the property for a profit once it was done with it - but the project fell through. "I prevailed, because I was still standing when the Monorail went under," Fujii said. "[But] the rulings that went on in our case have now left a very harmful precedent in the . . . legal framework around eminent domain in the State of Washington."

WPC President Dann Mead Smith noted that these stories showed the flaws in Washington state's current law.  "People should remember that property doesn't have rights, people have rights. When the government abuses eminent domain, it doesn't abuse property - it abuses people."

The study discusses each of these at length and points out other areas where reform is needed. According to Maurer, "It would be difficult for someone to hear the stories of these property owners and still say everything is fine with Washington law." 

"The leadership of the Governor, the Attorney General, and the House Majority Leader on the notice bill has been impressive," Mead Smith said.  "Our public officials recognize that this issue is extremely important to Washington residents from across the state and from every part of the political spectrum.  Fairness and respect are not partisan issues and it is exciting to see the level of cooperation that has occurred so far.”

The Policy Brief is available at and

Video of remarks by McKenna, Kessler, Maurer, Mead Smith and the property owners is available online at



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