Group Says Kansas, Missouri Among Worst Land Grabbers — KMBC-TV (Kansas City MO), 11/17/04

U.S. Supreme Court To Examine Use Of Eminent Domain

You think you own your home or land until a developer comes along and wants it. The watchdog group Institute for Justice says cities in Kansas and Missouri are the worst in the nation when it comes to taking private property for another person's private gain.

"This was our place. That was the family legacy; the family heirloom. I thought it was going to be there forever," said Daryl Penner, who lost his business.

For 70 years, Penner's family ran a business downtown until developers came along and wanted the property, KMBC's Jim Flink reported.

"We just didn't want to sell," Penner said.

Where Penner's shop used to be, is now the future home of Kansas City Live -- a centerpiece of the city's $1-billion plus downtown revival, seized through eminent domain.

"This neighborhood was a health hazard to our community," said Andi Udris, CEO of Economic Development Corp.

The Economic Development Corp. is spearheading the downtown revival, where the city uses something called "blight" to help City Council members determine what stays and what goes.

"There are standards that city inspectors use to determine if properties are blighted or not," Udris said.

Once a property is blighted, Flink said it becomes prime real estate for eminent domain. Some blight seems self-evident, but blight is not black and white.

"Anything is blight if the city legislature says it is," said Sherwin Epstein, an eminent domain attorney.

Epstein said blight, by Kansas City's definition, can be found just about anywhere and is. Flink said the new federal courthouse still sits on blighted land, along with parts of the Country Club Plaza now under development.

"It could be a perfectly sound building that has a business in it that is not prospering," Epstein said.

Roy Kirk's body shop was blighted, too. When his neighbor wanted to expand a parking lot, Kirk knew what was next.

"And I have to fight through legal systems to keep what is already mine," Kirk said.

Because of cases like Kirk's, a group of Washington lawyers, called Institute for Justice, is now fighting for people who claim they are eminent-domain victims.

"Well, if property is being taken for someone else's private benefit, that is not a public use. That not only mangles the words of the Constitution, but it mangles people's basic property rights. And it's outrageous," said Bert Gall, of the Institute for Justice.

For more than 200 years, eminent domain allowed the government to seize a person's land with fair compensation for things like bridges, highways, schools and courthouses.

But 25 years ago, that definition changed when the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that land could be seized for a "public purpose." A purpose that included cities seizing land, giving it to developers who could raise more in tax revenue. Cities started using that definition liberally.

"I plan on running this business my whole life, just like my father has," said Todd Crossley.

Crossley's thriving Ford dealership is blighted, according to the city of Liberty. Crossley said the 30-year-old family business is about to be seized by eminent domain.

"I don't see how it's legal. This is America. You own your own property. Nobody can take it away from you, unless someone has more money than you and then I guess they can take it," Crossley said.

Flink said that it is what more and more cities are doing. Kansas City recently seized Blue Ridge Mall to make way for a Wal-Mart supercenter. Kansas City, Kan., seized land to build the now famous Kansas Speedway. In the process of grand developments, Flink said individual property owners lose their land — a small sacrifice some say.

"And so the question now the public has to decide is: Is one businessman's inconvenience of being relocated to somewhere else in the downtown worth the entire region's economic development future?" Udris asked.

Gall disagrees.

"No one's home is safe if that is the standard — tax dollars and jobs," Gall said.

Penner learned his lesson of eminent domain the hard way.

"You know, you can't fight City Hall. It's unethical, unfair ... it's unconstitutional. It's, like, un-American," Penner said.

Flink said the Penners received $593,000 for their property. That is $17 per square foot. Kirk has been offered $3 per square foot. New construction can easily run $100 per square foot or more.

As for the number of eminent-domain seizures in the metro or nationwide, no one knows for sure because no one organization or clearinghouse keeps a record of all the property seized.

The U.S. Supreme Court will take up the issue of how cities use eminent domain during its next session. The high court will answer the question: Can a city take land from one private owner and give it to another private owner when the only public purpose is to generate more tax revenue?

KMBC-TV: www.thekansascitychannel.com