Project 21 New Visions

 

Court Rules Your Property Really Isn't Your Property


by David Almasi

When I heard the ruckus early Sunday morning, I didn't know I'd later discover that I was the "owner" of a new street sign.

While my neighbors up the street have had cars run up on their lawn due to a curve, I question the sign's effectiveness being placed so far from it.  But I'm mainly angry that it appeared on my property without my permission.

At least I thought it was my property.

When I called my county supervisor, I was told my property between the sidewalk and street is a state right-of-way.  Essentially, the state government can do whatever without warning or permission.  I won't be paid for its use.  Worst of all, I still have to cut the grass there every weekend.  If I don't tend to the state's right-of-way, the county may fine me for creating an eyesore.

At least I can count my blessings that I don't live in New London, Connecticut.  On June 23, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed, by a razor-thin margin, that New London city officials can condemn private property to give it to a business.  Families, some of whom lived in the 90-acre neighborhood for over 70 years, were evicted so pharmaceutical giant Pfizer could build a research park on the land.  While city officials claimed it was to increase revenues, Pfizer got a sweet dollar-a-year lease.

Eminent domain powers that were used to condemn that New London neighborhood have traditionally been used for public projects such as roads, parks and hospitals.  Recently, however, local governments are seeking to enhance their bottom lines by taking private property and making it available to interested businesses.  And the Supreme Court gave it their blessing.

Anthony Williams, the mayor of Washington, D.C. and the president of the National League of Cities, lauded the Court's decision, calling eminent domain "one of the most powerful tools city officials have to rejuvenate their neighborhoods."  He is particularly happy because he's about to lower the boom on small businesses and homeowners to make way for a privately owned baseball stadium.

Our Constitution states that "nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation."  The Fifth Amendment ends with a period, not a comma and listing of exceptions such as wetlands, endangered species or stadiums.  The Supreme Court's ruling in the New London case opens up a Pandora's Box of potential government pilfering.  And it will most likely be the vulnerable segments of our population being given "an offer they can't refuse" from the government.

Justice Clarence Thomas pointed this out in his dissent in the case, noting that urban renewal projects disproportionately affect minorities, the elderly and the poor and that this decision would likely "exacerbate these effects."  The NAACP shares Thomas's concern.  If these usually opposing viewpoints can find agreement on something, it should underscore its importance and make people take notice!

Eminent domain abuse, combined with the "smart growth" anti-development policies that are gaining popularity in some areas, could also create a housing crisis.  As urban renewal evictions force the poor, elderly and minorities from their homes, government development restrictions in nearby urban and suburban areas would price the dispossessed further from their jobs and families.  Commutes will increase.  People may have to share homes with other families.

An econometric study commissioned by The National Center for Public Policy Research found approximately one million American homeowners - over a quarter of them minority households - would not have been able to own the homes they do now if accepted "smart growth" policies were enforced nationwide during the 1990s.  If eminent domain abuse causes a trail of tears from urban centers to "smart growth" zones, the fear of overcrowding, homelessness and nomadic existences for many families could become a reality.

I'm mad about my new lawn ornament, but it's selfish by comparison.  Eminent domain abuse, aided and abetted by the Supreme Court, is a real problem that could affect millions, especially if "smart growth" restricts options.

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David Almasi is executive director of the National Center for Public Policy Research.  Comments may be sent to [email protected].

Published by The National Center for Public Policy Research. Reprints permitted provided source is credited. New Visions Commentaries reflect the views of their author, and not necessarily those of Project 21.


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