After a concentrated statewide petition-signing campaign, followed by a legal challenge that went all the way to the state supreme court, Mississippi voters will have an opportunity in the Nov. 8 general election to express their opinion on whether the state should be restricted in its ability to take private property through eminent domain.

Mississippi was one of only a handful of states in the nation without such safeguards following a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling that opened the way for private property to be taken under eminent domain for private development.

The petition effort, spearheaded by the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation, resulted in almost 120,000 signatures asking that the issue be included on the ballot. Only about 90,000 were needed to comply with voting regulations.

Hardly had the secretary of state verified that the number of petitions was adequate before the director of the Mississippi Development Authority, acting as a private citizen, filed a legal challenge, contending that the measure would hamper economic development in the state. The argument ended up before the Mississippi Supreme Court, which ruled in early September that it could be placed on the ballot.

“We were very pleased with the court’s decision,” says Randy Knight, president of the 190,000-member state Farm Bureau organization. “It has been important to us, in leading this effort, that the average citizen not be run over by our own government.

“They have to have a way to protect family land and homes, and not be put to the considerable expense of defending an eminent domain case. We urge Mississippians to go to the polls Nov. 8 and vote ‘yes’ on Initiative 31 to prevent eminent domain abuse.”

The Farm Bureau organization had made several attempts in recent years to get an eminent domain bill into law. But although it passed the House and Senate in 2009, Governor Haley Barbour vetoed it, which spurred the farm group to start the petition drive to put the measure on a statewide ballot.

Forty-plus states enacted laws to strengthen private property rights following the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2005 5-to-4 landmark ruling (Kelo vs. City of New London, Conn.) that held if a private company or individual can make better use of a piece of property than the current owner, it is legal for the government to use eminent domain to force the owner to sell his property to the developer.

In the New London case, the court ruled that held that 15 homes in a waterfront neighborhood could be acquired by the city, turned over to private developers, and ultimately replaced by a luxury hotel, upscale condos and office buildings. The city justified the project as a way to generate tax revenue and jobs.One of the landowners, Suzette Kelo, filed a lawsuit alleging that the city’s actions were unconstitutional since economic development was not a ‘public use.’

The Supreme Court ruling said that economic development was a public use since the increased tax revenue would benefit the public.

In a stinging dissent to the majority ruling, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote: “The specter of condemnation hangs over all property. Nothing is to prevent the state from replacing any Motel 6 with a Ritz-Carlton, any home with a shopping mall, or any farm with a factory. The beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms.”