Poletown Seizures are Ruled Unlawful

by John Gallagher

Reversing more than two decades of land-use law, the Michigan Supreme Court late Friday overturned its own landmark 1981 Poletown decision and sharply restricted governments such as Detroit and Wayne County from seizing private land to give to other private users.

The unanimous decision is a decisive victory for property owners who object to the government seizing their land, only to give it to another private owner to build stadiums, theaters, factories, housing subdivisions and other economic development projects the government deems worthwhile.

Detroit and other municipalities have used the Poletown standard for years to justify land seizures as a way to revitalize.

In the decision, the court rejected Wayne County's attempt to seize private land south of Metro Airport for its proposed Pinnacle Aeropark high-technology park. The Pinnacle project, announced in 1999, is geared to making Wayne County a hub of international high-tech development linked to the airport.

Backers of the Poletown standard warned that Friday's decision could be a "significant blow" to revitalization efforts in blighted cities like Detroit. John Mogk, a professor of land-use law at Wayne State University, said Detroit needs to use its powers, known as eminent domain, to seize land to clear large tracts for new economic development, including retail centers, office parks and residential projects.

"Any limitation on the power of eminent domain will reduce the chances of the city accomplishing those kind of projects," Mogk said. "No other city with which Detroit competes has such limitations placed upon its ability to acquire tracts of land for future development."

In the original Poletown ruling, the court allowed the City of Detroit to seize private homes and businesses on the east side so General Motors Corp. Could build an auto factory. The bitterly contested seizures and the court's ruling in favor of the city had national implications and led to similar rulings elsewhere.

Thousands of homes and dozens of churches and private businesses were bulldozed in Detroit's former Poletown neighborhood to make way for the GM plant.

Of 1,300 acres needed for Wayne County's Pinnacle project, property owners representing about 2 percent of the land have refused to sell. They have resisted, in part because much of the project would later be turned over to private developers and other entities.

In Friday's decision, known as Wayne County v. Hathcock after one of the landowners in the case, the court ruled that the sweeping powers to seize private land granted in the 1981 Poletown case violated the state's 1963 constitution.

"The county is without constitutional authority to condemn the properties," the court's opinion read. All seven justices voted to overturn Poletown, although three dissented over some technical aspects that do not affect the main ruling.

Justice Robert Young, who wrote the lead opinion, called the 1981 case allowing Detroit's Poletown neighborhood to be cleared for a GM plant a "radical departure from fundamental constitutional principles."

"We overrule Poletown," Young wrote, "in order to vindicate our constitution, protect the people's property rights and preserve the legitimacy of the judicial branch as the expositor, not creator, of fundamental law."

Alan Ackerman, one of the attorneys who represented landowners in the case, said he was "elated at the recognition that it is a government of limited powers. The constitution did not contemplate that the government would do everything for everybody."

But a spokesman for Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano issued a statement saying that "the Michigan Supreme Court's decision to change Michigan law and divest municipalities from their ability to create jobs for their citizens is a disappointment not only for Wayne County, but for all of the Michigan communities struggling to address these difficult economic times."

The court said its ruling covers any condemnation cases now being heard before lower courts in which Poletown issues have been raised. The former owners of Poletown properties that were seized to clear land for the GM plant are not affected by the decision.

The decision won't stop all uses of eminent domain. All sides agreed governments can still take private land for traditional uses such as slum clearance or for a private use deemed essential to the public good, such as to build a regulated public utility. And the government's ability to seize land for governmental purposes such as building schools and roads was never in question.

What the decision does mean is that the cost of land just went up for municipalities trying to accomplish economic development. Now that governments can no longer use the threat of seizure, private owners and speculators could demand higher prices to get out of the way of projects that government leaders deem essential.

Copyright © 2004 Detroit Free Press Inc.