Jewish World Review August 3, 2001 / 14 Menachem-Av, 5761
John H. Fund
Of grubbing and grabbing: Corporation$ and local government$ perfect "public use"
THE Constitution allows the seizure of
private property by government for "public use"
so long as "just compensation" is given. But
cities all over the country are transferring their
power to seize land to private corporations that
then use it to promote "economic development."
A Connecticut trial now underway is shining
some needed light on the growing number of
eminent domain abuses.
Seven residents of New London, Conn. are
suing to block the seizure and destruction of their homes to
make way for a private real-estate development designed to
take advantage of Pfizer Corp.'s adjacent new global
research headquarters. Susette Kelo says the city had no
right to transfer its powers of eminent domain and oversight
to the New London Development Corporation, a private
entity that wants to tear down a historic neighborhood to
build office space, a parking lot and 80 units of
The NLDC says that for the Pfizer complex to succeed
the surrounding land must be enhanced with office space
and amenities. The final project would revitalize New
London, the sixth-poorest city in the state, and represents a
"highest and best use" of the land. But the Institute of
Justice, which represents the homeowners in the trial, says
"if you buy that argument then constitutional rights mean
nothing because a government can always find a 'better use'
for anyone's property."
Property owners are offered money when their land is
condemned for private use, but the compensation is often
far from just. In New London, Bill Von Winkle says he
can't replace the loyal customer base for his delicatessen if
he moves or the good neighbors he'll lose along with his
home. Another property owner will have to leave a house
her family has occupied since 1901.
Richard Epstein, a
University of Chicago
law professor, says
frequently lowballs its
"You get frequent corruption as people pressure city halls to
seize land on the cheap," he said. Indeed, the politically
powerful often escape condemnation. In New London, the
Italian Dramatic Club, a social club with influential members,
was spared, while all the other privately owned properties in
the area weren't.
VOTERS PUSH BACK
After years of slumber, voters are waking up to the
abuses eminent domain can create. Last year, 70 percent of
voters in Baltimore County, Md. repealed a law giving the
county government expanded power to use eminent domain
for economic redevelopment. Voters in Little Rock, Ark.
are trying to block the city's seizure of land for Bill Clinton's
Taj Mahal of a presidential library.
The courts are also getting involved. In Bristol, Conn.,
the city seized a 30-acre farm because Yarde Metals
wanted it in order to expand and threatened to leave town if
it didn't get more land. Yarde left anyway, so the farm's
owners now believe courts will give their farm back to them.
Last December, a Connecticut court ruled that the city of
Bridgeport had illegally seized a local yacht club and
ordered it be returned to its owner. In February, a
Pennsylvania court held that Montgomery County couldn't
transfer its sovereign eminent domain power to a developer.
No one argues that blighted cities don't have a right to
improve themselves through redevelopment. But it shouldn't
happen by force, especially when private parties often stand
to gain far more than the general
Comment on JWR contributor John H. Fund's column by clicking here.
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©2001, John H. Fund