The mere mention of eminent domain brings thoughts of government out-of-control. Eminent domain (the power of a government to take private property for public use, with compensation paid to the owner) has been damned by many and praised by few. It is one of those necessary evils, which give us the quality of life that we demand.
While serving as Mayor of my hometown, we were faced with the task of eminent domain. Our raw water impoundment needed to be increased to accommodate the increase in population and industry. We followed the statutes of North Carolina to the letter. All of the property within the impoundment area was assessed for value. Landowners were offered market value of their land. Since the land was in a rural area, we allowed the landowners to continue using their property for crops and gardens. They were also allowed to harvest trees on the land. We used the eminent domain vehicle for the remaining few who resisted. Honesty, most of these were for reasons of value. The Court appointed an assessor to further assess the property and the city was required to pay the assessed value. The landowners had the right to appeal this action. We didn't have to go any further. The impoundment was increased and we now have an adequate supply of raw water. This seems like a classic good use of eminent domain.
Seeing that abuses of eminent domain statutes could be serious, the City Council of my hometown passed a resolution condemning the use of eminent domain for the gain of private enterprise. The Kelo v. City of New London case recently heard before the Supreme Court was cited as a compelling reason for the Council's action. Members of the Council realize that this may be just a quixotic act. Nevertheless, it is an action of some moral standing and it echo's my favorite words of Adlai Stephenson paraphrased: "And, my friends even more important than winning the election is governing the community. That is the test of members of city councils - the acid, final test. When the tumult and the shouting die, when the bands are gone and the lights are dimmed, there is the stark responsibility in an hour of history."
In the Kelo case, the City of New London, Connecticut started eminent domain proceeding against a group of homeowners in the Fort Trumbull neighborhood. New London's argument was also a simple one - the city needs more tax revenue. The people who are living there now aren't wealthy. If the city gets rid of them and replaces them with an expensive hotel, richer residents and an office building, the city will have more tax dollars. Because the city has a prime location on the waterfront, a developer can make a good profit off it, and that profit will bring more money to the city. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that cities may take land in order to remove "slums" or "blight." the property may then be transferred to private ownership to develop into a "non-blighted way", it has never held that property can be condemned for the sole purpose of private development. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said "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."
Still the beat goes on in Council Chambers of cities seeking new revenue sources. The idea that to take property of less value and replacing it with property of higher value is the way to go. The mayor of Kansas City, Missouri told lawmakers that her city couldn't turn itself around without sometimes taking property. Mayor Kay Barnes said that some economic development project could not go on without eminent domain. She said the Kansas City has the "right of eminent domain" as a last resort. If I remember my civics lessons, municipalities do not have rights. Individuals have rights.
"'there remains the broader issue of why government planners should be empowered to dispossess people in the name of urban renewal. Where the government sees ‘blight,' its victims see their homes, their hard work, their livelihoods and their dreams.'" - Reason Senior Editor. Jacob Sullum in his nationally syndicated column.
It appears that we are treading on very thin ice when municipalities can use the vehicle of eminent domain to take private property for private commercial gain in the name of creating revenue. I have often thought that creating revenue for the operation of a municipality is the most challenging aspect of local government. Eminent domain must be watched closely - there are many groups that are doing just that. Here is a short list of these groups that I used in research for this article: