Abuse of Eminent Domain
The Point, 10/12/04

Commentary by Bruce Hyman

"Private property [shall not] be taken for public use without just compensation." So says the Constitution's Fifth Amendment. In other words, your home is your castle and the local government must pay you a fair value if it puts a new road through your backyard for the public good.

But some states have stretched the meaning of the phrase "the public good." Last year, city fathers in Alabaster, Alabama in suburban Birmingham wanted to condemn 10 homes to make way for a shopping center. Two years ago California's Cypress City leaders tried to seize church property so that Costco would build a discount warehouse.

Officials in New London, Connecticut thought bulldozing several private homes in a working class neighborhood so that a developer could build a riverfront hotel made sense. But homeowners there fought back. The Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that getting more tax revenue outweighed the interests of the homeowners. And now the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case.

A Supreme Court decision will have wide-ranging repercussions. At least seven states Connecticut, Kansas, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, New York and North Dakota allow local governments to seize property for economic development reasons - in other words, to increase tax revenues.

Hopefully, the highest court will strike down such laws. Planning a new highway, building a new school or opening another firehouse makes sense. But it seems to me that seizing private property so a deeper pocketed constituent can use it and oh by the way, pay more in local taxes does not fall within the spirit and intent of serving "the public good."

In fact, serving "the public good" would seem to mean preserving homeowners rights except in the most critical and dire circumstances, such as planning a new highway that everyone can use and not just for launching a new membership store or for building a four-star resort hotel. Let's hope the Supreme Court rules the right way on this case.

And that's the Point.

I'm Mark Hyman

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