Running Scared: Observations of a Former Republican
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"Losing my faith in humanity ... one neocon at a time."

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Imminent Eminence

posted by Jazz at 2/22/2005 02:41:00 PM


This is one case, for personal reasons which I'll share below, which I've been waiting to see come to the Supreme Court. It involves a case of eminent domain in Connecticut. The state wants to take away the property of a number of landowners and turn the area over to a private developer who will build more valuable (read: higher tax producing) real estate. Here's the nuts and bolts of it.
At issue is whether governments can forcibly seize homes and businesses, for private economic development. Under a practice known as eminent domain, a person's property may be condemned and the land converted for a greater "public use." It has traditionally been employed to eliminate slums, or to build highways, schools or other public works.
Now there is valid reason for the Constitution to allow for eminent domain in the cause of the greater public good. The applicable portion comes to us from the fifth amendment, which reads in part as follows: "...[no person shall be] deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation."

The key phrase here is "public use." Quando Blog has an excellent rundown of the history of such cases in the courts which is well worth reading. The crux of it is that courts have shown a tendency to build upon cases in both state and federal courts, in 1954 and 1981, which seemed to imply that "public use" could be construed to mean "if the public would benefit" to allow government seizures of property for transfer from one private owner to another. This, in my never very humble opinion, is a pile of dingo's kidneys.

I understand that, at times, the land of private citizens may have to be purchased for expansion of the infrastructure... new or improved roads, railroads, public facilities such as waste treatment, etc. However, stretching that definition to include seizing land and kicking off poorer people so you can turn it into a more lucrative development is insanity and goes against the original intent of the constitution.

My first experience with eminent domain came when I was in middle school. I grew up in Upstate New York, with our family's property being right along the banks of the Erie Canal and along a state highway... the only one that runs through that particular section of farmland. About a mile down the road from us was the only bridge in the area which crossed over the canal and into the nearby village.

Across from the bridge was the property of one of my school friends. His family had a large house directly facing the bridge where their family had lived since the 1800's. They didn't have a lot of money, but it was a nice, big house for the area. Unfortunately, the bridge was ancient, built originally for literal horse and buggy traffic. It had been expanded and built up over the years, but it was unsafe. It had to be replaced.

A plan was put in place where the bridge would be torn down and a new, modern, wide bridge would be installed. In order to prevent people from having to make left turns on or off of the bridge, a "cloverleaf" would be put in with ramps on each side of the road. This, unfortunately, meant that my friend's house would have to be torn down. They were upset about it, but eventually sold the state (for a completely lowball, crap amount of money) the front section of their property and agreed to build a new, smaller house up the hill on the back section of the land. (This resulted in them having a long, uphill, twisting driveway that was a nightmare to navigate.)

The state came in when the project was about to start and began, first thing, by grading the sides of the highway and immediately tearing down their home. Then... the project stalled. More than a year went by as various problems in engineering and contracts with the state were ironed out. When they finally restarted the work, the design had changed so there was no cloverleaf, and the highway was only slightly widened near the bridge for turning lanes. During the entire construction, not one vehicle tread upon the land where my friend's house used to stand. Today the state owns a small muddy pit in front of their house that sits deserted.

That was my first introduction to eminent domain, and you can imagine the impression it left on me. Seeing this sort of activity by Connecticut simply makes my blood boil. Looking around the web, I can't find a single blogger who thinks this is a good plan.

Pejmanesque seems to think this will be a big decision with far reaching effects.

Vodkapundit weighs in with some good commentary.
I'll make clearer what the story is trying to say. Eminent domain has been abused in recent years, as a way for politicians and developers to profit at the expense of home- and small business-owners - by way of legally forcing them off their land. Developers get what they want (prime property at cut-rate prices) by force of arms, and government gets what it wants (tax revenue) in exchange.
There's plenty more around the web, but I'll leave you to read and decide for yourselves.