Most states are debating new ways of handling eminent-domain cases, but Utah already has a means: a private-property ombudsman--the first (and still only) such ombudsman in the country.
When the position was created in 1997, eminent domain was the one specified responsibility. But Utah recently expanded the ombudsman's duties to include the handling of all disputes between property owners and units of government, including planning and zoning issues. It also added an incentive to keep "interested parties" from going to court after the ombudsman issues an opinion: Any party that does so risks having to pay the other side's attorney fees if they lose in court.
Attorney Craig Call has been the ombudsman since the position was created and is involved in about 600 cases a year. For the state Department of Transportation, Call has helped lower the number of eminent-domain cases that go to court from 25 percent to 4 percent.
Local government officials don't appear concerned that the expansion of the ombudsman's powers will hinder their plans. For one thing, this year's bill created an advisory committee that the ombudsman will have to answer to, perhaps softening his ability to play the advocate for private-property owners.
For another, the risk of incurring attorney fees or otherwise earning the ombudsman's ill favor cuts both ways. Karl Hendrickson, legal counsel for the Utah Association of Counties, says developers may not "fully appreciate the extent to which neighborhoods can use the process."