Alarms raised over property rights changes in PawSox bill

Michelle r. Smith, Associated Press

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) -- A package of legislation to authorize a new stadium for the Pawtucket Red Sox has a side effect that has received little public notice. Legal observers and critics of the deal say if passed as written, the legislation would broaden the government's authority to seize land for private use and have consequences far beyond a single stadium project.

The head of the Senate committee that is scheduled to open hearings Thursday on the deal, Senate Finance Committee Chairman William Conley, said it was inadvertent and the committee plans to address the concerns over eminent domain as it revises the bill following public comment.

The deal would provide a $23 million state investment to help finance the estimated $83 million stadium for the Boston Red Sox Triple-A affiliate in downtown Pawtucket, about a mile from its current home.

One of the two bills being considered as part of the legislative package would remove the phrase "blighted and substandard" from the definition of a redevelopment agency. It also changes the wording of state law so that, rather than preventing redevelopment agencies from constructing buildings for residential, commercial, or industrial use, it authorizes them to do so.

Roger Williams Law School Professor Bruce Kogan, who teaches property and land use, said the new wording would allow government to use eminent domain to seize land for a private development even if it's not blighted.

He cited a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Kelo v. City of New London, which gave state and local government eminent domain authority to seize private property for economic development projects.

"If it were to be enacted, it would justify a lot of use of governmental eminent domain for projects that are perceived to be in the long term for the economic good of the community. The interesting thing and ironic thing about Kelo is that after New London was told you can do this if you want, the project never went forward anyhow," he said.

"Could eminent domain be used in a way that some people would see as misused? Sure, that could happen all the time," he added.

Opponents of the stadium deal on different ends of the ideological spectrum have separately raised concerns about the wording of the bill.

"This is not just about the PawSox anymore. It will affect property rights almost anywhere in Rhode Island," Brandon Bell, head of the state GOP, said last week. "I don't think most people, if they realized that, would be very accepting of. It's a pretty scary prospect to get to that extreme."

Jennifer Siciliano, an urban planner and member of the executive board of the Rhode Island Progressive Democrats of America, said she works often on redevelopment projects and was surprised to see the term "blighted" being removed. That would allow any area to be taken over for a redevelopment project, she said.

Conley, a Democrat who represents East Providence and Pawtucket, said the goal of the bill is to make sure the redevelopment agency is able to help finance the deal. Under the proposal, the team would contribute $45 million to the project, including $12 million up front and $33 million financed by a taxable lease revenue bond issued by the Pawtucket Redevelopment Agency. The city would contribute $15 million.

"It's not at all designed to expand eminent domain authority. While I understand when you look at it, the language is a concern. We will have to address that," he said.

Conley said the committee will work to "strike that balance, where we make sure that it allows the redevelopment agency to authorize and issue the bonds but not expand eminent domain authority beyond what is required for this particular project."

He promised the legislative process would be "the most accessible and transparent process for legislation the history of the state of Rhode Island."