Skip to comments.The scandal of eminent domain
Posted on 05/30/2002 8:56:51 AM PDT by logician2u
In 1781, British troops led by Benedict Arnold torched New London, Conn., and captured Fort Trumbull. About 220 years later, the Fort Trumbull neighborhood has become the site of renewed fighting. The enemy's weapon this time is not the cannon, but the power of eminent domain. And once again, the locals haven't fared so well.
The modern battle began when the New London Development Corp. used the power of eminent domain to condemn nearly an entire neighborhood of weathered cottages, modest Victorians and blue-collar businesses. Eminent domain is the right of the state to take private property for public purposes. The classic example of public use is a new highway.
The scandal today is that governments now condemn private property not for public use, but for private use. "Our cities and states have become like real-estate speculators, securing land owned by their own citizens on behalf of politically connected private interests," said Scott Bullock, a lawyer with the Washington-based Institute for Justice.
The NLDC's plan was to raze The Fort neighborhood and replace the old houses with upscale condos, hotels, restaurants and office parks. They've largely succeeded. Only a few holdouts remain, and they are pushing their cases in the courts.
Longtime residents asked how a local group allegedly dedicated to their well-being could do such a thing. They seem to have forgotten that Benedict Arnold was a Connecticut boy.
The institute placed New London first on its list of "The Top 10 Abuses of Eminent Domain." Other examples: In Riviera Beach, Fla., over 1,700 buildings were condemned for commercial and industrial development. In Merriam, Kansas, a seller of used cars was cleared out to make way for a BMW dealership.
You don't have to be a property-rights fanatic to look on with horror at these modern uses of eminent domain. Cities may now condemn a property just because they believe somebody can make better use of it than the current owner. For example, a private home may be condemned because a business in its place would employ people and pay more taxes.
"If that's the justification for taking someone's property, anyone's property is up for grabs," Bullock said. "This is a pernicious doctrine that we're determined to stop."
Until very recently, the world pretty much ignored The Fort. Although located on the Thames River, the area did not attract moneyed people. They showed little enthusiasm for living alongside auto body shops and a sewage plant.
With Pfizer's shiny new research facility around the corner and Fort Trumbull gloriously restored, The Fort suddenly became prime waterfront property. Pfizer apparently did not share the Yankee affection for old houses with sagging front porches.
"Pfizer wants a nice place to operate," said Pfizer executive David Burnett. "We don't want to be surrounded by tenements."
As it happened, Burnett's wife is Claire Gaudiani, then head of the NLDC. The city granted her organization the power of eminent domain.
Gaudiani previously served as president of Connecticut College and framed the NLDC's plans in high-minded terms. "The idea here for me, as a college president," she said, "was not just how do you change the economy, but how do you enable the economy to transform the lives of the least of our brothers and sisters. And so while we were making economic progress, we were making social justice progress."
How do you like that? Clearing out an old neighborhood and replacing it with upscale development was, at bottom, a strike for social justice.
Some residents complained that the NLDC had pressured them to sell out, warning they'd get less money later. With the area improving, property owners wondered why they couldn't hold on and prosper from rising real-estate values.
The tide may be turning against these government land grabs. The Illinois Supreme Court recently barred the condemning of land in East St. Louis to expand parking at a racetrack. In return for taking the neighbor's land, a development authority was going to collect a $56,600 commission from the racetrack!
The Connecticut Supreme Court has just agreed to decide whether New London may use eminent domain purely for economic development. Sadly, no ruling can bring back The Fort, which has been mostly leveled. Sometimes, battles must be fought
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A city wants to "improve its image" by condemning a strip mall to turn the property over to a big box retailer; a church wants to expand onto land it bought, but the city won't let it -- instead it condemns the property so a Costco warehouse (which pays taxes which the church does not) can locate there.
For a liberal like Froma Harrop to write about this is a good sign.
With a few more outrageous examples of government land grabs, perhaps the American people will start to realize that eminent domain is not a "right" after all.
Rights are what people have, and are born with; powers are given to the government. As such, they can also be taken away.
Just put the right people in charge of things and there's no stopping them.
This, people, is properly known as a KICKBACK.
In practice, it's very hard to distinguish between an agree-to
commission kickback and the promise of greater sales-tax revenue from a Costco than from a church, for instance.
In both cases, you have politians looking to enrich the agency's or city's treasury so they can get the voters to approve the next bond issue and build another library or jail or recreation center without raising taxes so they can lure the next dot-com spinoff with special tax incentives to a vacant property that the city wanted to build a golf course on, but now . . .
Eminent domain is really the time of the iceberg. When the public learns about the other 5/7, there'll be some changes made.
I doubt it. Americans no longer possess the spine to stand up against abuse. They'll put up with just about anything, and like it.
Proof? Watch the re-election of local candidates around the country who engage in these eminent domain abuses. People just don't care until it's their own house getting bulldozed, and the ball game is still on TV.
But I didn't really expect him to.
Unfortunately, there are too many Republicans who will also shy away from leading the charge simply bacause it opens them to criticism for members of their party such as GWB and probably many others who also profited.
Go along to get along.
You said it!
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