Growth of eminent domain is a troubling omen: (Fairfield CA) Daily Republic, 2/27/05


By Bill James

A case before the U.S. Supreme Court could ultimately shape the future of Suisun City's redevelopment plans for Old Town.

In case you missed the front page story a few days ago, the high court is struggling to rule on a suit brought by residents of a small Connecticut town against City Hall. City leaders plan to use the power of eminent domain to take control of homes and businesses in a working-class neighborhood and turn the properties over to a private developer.

Sound familiar?

Suisun City voted unanimously last year to restore its power of eminent domain so it might use it as a tool to improve blighted areas around the community. During discussions at the time, it was clear the City Council was targeting some Old Town buildings and at least a couple of apartment complexes.

At the center of the discussion in Washington, D.C., is the contention of the attorney representing the city of New London, Conn., who said the increased tax revenues was enough of a legal basis for the city to exercise its power of eminent domain.

Justice Sandra O'Connor asked the attorney, Wesley Horton, if the city wanted to seize the property to turn "a Motel 6 into a Ritz-Carlton Hotel, would that be OK?" His answer was, "Yes."

That is extremely bothersome.

This attorney just scoffed at the protections of the Fifth Amendment that limits the taking of private property for public use with just compensation.

Oh, the city is willing to pay the multitude of property owners in New London.

The problem is many of New London's residents don't want to sell and a number of the properties aren't run down.

One report tells of Susette Kelo, a nurse who bought a run-down property in the New London neighborhood. She restored it into her dream home, only to learn a short time later the city had condemned it. A court order is the only thing keeping her from eviction. What the justices decide will seal her fate.

Using the reasoning of New London's attorney arguing the case before the court, no property in America is safe. If a government agency deems it can make more tax revenue by razing "blighted" property, it should be able to move forward anytime, anywhere.

That would mean Suisun City could take control of the entire west side of Main Street if chose to and then sell it to a private developer.

Using that same argument - that any big box retailer would generate more retail tax than a couple of small "mom and pop" stores - the bulldozers should be rolling soon.

I can see it now: Wal-Mart replacing Kmart. Why not Disney building a new theme park on the Lagoon Valley property? Why settle for a golf course, some executive homes and a business park? "Disney Valley" will certainly generate more tax dollars.

One of the discussion points before the court by the homeowners' attorney is the lack of standards that currently exist when cities grab whole neighborhoods for economic revitalization.

Few would argue with the premise that Suisun City's use of eminent domain to clear out the old Crescent neighborhood more than decade ago was a good application of the law. Victorian Harbor has been a key element in Old Town's steady improvement.

What I would hope would come out of this case is this: The Supreme Court should establish some clear standards that apply when invoking eminent domain.

Preventing decay of neighborhoods is important. And no one wants to see the equity of someone's home or business being sucked out because of neighboring blighted properties.

But without specific justification, forcing the sale of someone's property because someone has more political pull goes against the basic philosophy of our democracy, which should protect life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

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