'Big-box' invasion can flatten us all — The Providence (RI) Journal, 1/10/05

By Froma Harrop

As city residents go, I'm pretty trouble-free. I pay my property taxes. I recycle the garbage. The fire department visited only once, when a roast in my oven set off the smoke alarm. All in all, I've been a good deal for the city.

But that doesn't mean the city couldn't do better by getting rid of me. It could level my house and tomato patch, and have Costco build a big box in their stead. Because Costcos take up a lot of room, the city would probably have to grab 15 of my neighbors' houses, as well. No problem. A Costco could pay more taxes than all of us combined.

There is a problem, however. We like where we live, and this is America. In America, property owners don't have to give up their homes because someone else wants the land. Right?

Not necessarily. States and local governments across the country have been condemning properties and giving them to private businesses. They do so in the name of "economic development:" The new owners will create jobs and pay more taxes, so the old ones should go.

But not everyone is meekly turning in the front-door keys. They've been challenging these takings of property - all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The justices are now considering a case that pits New London, Conn., against property owners in an old blue-collar neighborhood called Fort Trumbull. The drug maker Pfizer had built a research facility nearby and wanted the area spiffed up. So the plan was to raze the area's weathered cottages and auto-body shops, and replace them with upscale condos, restaurants and office parks.

The case is really about the rules covering eminent domain - the right of the state to take property for public use. Governments have always had this right. What's changed is the definition of "public use." Traditionally, this referred to such obviously public facilities as roads, post offices or military bases. Now governments want "public use" to include developments that bring in more tax money.

The law does require governments to pay "just compensation" for condemned properties. But what if the owner doesn't want to sell at any price? For example, Fort Trumbull, Conn., resident Wilhelmina Dery was born in her house 86 years ago. She wants to die there.

Suppose the property owner doesn't want to sell at the price offered. That was the case of Leon Howlett, a farmer in Glendale, Ky. The state wanted to take his family farm for a Hyundai assembly plant. Howlett said he really didn't want to sell his 110 acres but would go along if given $10 million for the land, rather than the $1 million offered. (Hyundai ended up building its plant in Alabama.)

Condemning private property can cause great pain even when the use is clearly public, as for a highway. But when improving the tax base is deemed a "public use," feelings can quickly turn raw. For example, Riviera Beach, Fla., voted to oust 5,100 lower-income residents for a yachting, shipping and tourism complex. Merriam, Kan., condemned a used-car business to help a fancy BMW dealership expand.

These flashing abuses have pushed state courts to tighten up the rules. Last summer, the Michigan Supreme Court stopped Detroit and Wayne County from taking private land near Metro Airport for a new high-technology park.

In doing so, the court overturned its infamous Poletown decision. That 1981 ruling had let bulldozers flatten thousands of homes, churches and businesses in an old Polish neighborhood in Detroit to make way for a General Motors factory. Governments everywhere saw the Poletown decision as a green light to take private property for economic development - which came to include upscale shopping and ritzy residences.

A quick word of sympathy for Wayne County, New London, and other local governments starving for tax revenues: They need economic development badly. But there are still rules of the road. States and local governments can work with property owners or work around them. They just can't drive through them. You don't have to be a property-rights fanatic to see what's wrong with forcibly taking one person's home or shop to attract a better class of taxpayer. Let us hope that the Supreme Court drives a stake through this scary idea.

The Providence Journal: www.projo.com