Libertarian speaker decries government abuse of eminent domain: Athens (OH) news, 2/24/05

By Clay Flaherty

The head of Ohio's Libertarian Party warned a small group of Ohio University students Monday about the government's excessive use of eminent domain to take over private properties.

"Ohio is known for the worst eminent domain abuses in the country," Robert Butler, executive director of the Libertarian Party of Ohio, declared during his talk in Bentley Hall. "Most people don't realize the government can take away their home until it's too late."

Eminent domain is a legal process that allows the government to take privately owned land for public use, or for private uses deemed in behalf of the public welfare. It has been used, for example, to condemn blighted neighborhoods in the way of redevelopment, or to take properties in the way of highways or utility lines.

The U.S. Supreme Court earlier this week heard arguments in an eminent-domain case involving residents of a New London, Conn., working-class neighborhood who are trying to keep their homes, according to an article Wednesday in The New York Times. The city wants the land for an economic development project.

Butler acknowledged Monday evening that the government may have legitimate reasons to exercise eminent domain, such as the construction of highways and utility lines. However, he also cited incidents where the "public good" is not being served with eminent domain.

"Where we start to disagree (with the use of eminent domain) is when a private developer starts to profit from your land," he said.

Butler cited the cities of Norwood and Lakewood, Ohio, as examples of recent eminent-domain abuse. Butler said that the government, in return for increased tax revenue, takes away land from citizens and then hands it over to private developers, under the guise of "improving it for the public good."

Butler said that the government's first step in exercising eminent domain is having property condemned or declared "blighted." Property that does not meet certain criteria laid down by local government can receive this designation. The government is then allowed to seize the land in order to "improve" it, he said.

"The way the government improves the neighborhood is by taking your house away and giving it to someone else," Butler said.

He said homes in Lakewood were declared blighted for having only one bathroom or having an unpaved driveway. "Its scary to think about," Butler said.

Dan Corbett, president of the Ohio University Libertarians, said he agreed with Butler's analysis of eminent-domain abuses. "Eminent domain had its place, but when you use it for private development, it seems like a really thin argument," he said.

Corbett argued that there are "no incentives for (private corporations) to use the land responsibly" once they have been given a "free tab by the government."

The fight against eminent-domain abuses, Corbett continued, has elements of class struggle. "It's poor people that are going to lose their homes," he said. "There's definitely class components in the argument."

During his speech, Butler talked about organizations that help fight eminent-domain abuse, including the Institute of Justice, a civil-liberties law firm that has fought eminent domain abuses across the country. "They protect people from eminent-domain abuse — that is their specific goal," Butler said.

Founded in 1991, the institute seeks to "advance a rule of law under which individuals can control their own destinies as free and responsible members of society," according to group's Web site.

The Institute for Justice played a vital role in helping to fight eminent-domain abuses in Lakewood and Norwood. On Feb. 11, 2005, the institute filed an appeal with the Ohio Supreme Court to protect homes in the city of Norwood, which were seized with the use of eminent domain, and given to a private developer in order to expand his nearby mall.

Butler also talked about the Castle Coalition, an organization that allows activists against eminent-domain abuse to "take matters into their own hands." According to its Web site, the Castle Coalition serves as an organizing force that allows activists "to network with each other and give support, ideas and advice."

Butler also touched on the difficulties facing third-party initiatives in Ohio. According to Butler, it's nearly impossible to gain recognition as a minor political party in Ohio. "Its easier to be recognized as a political party in Iraq than in Ohio," he said.

He added that Ohio is out of touch with its neighboring states in terms of political awareness. According to Butler, Indiana has had automatic ballot recognition for Libertarian candidates for 10 years, and that other states, including Michigan, also have recognized the party's political validity.

However, Butler expressed optimism concerning future efforts by the Libertarian Party of Ohio, especially in Athens. "The Libertarian presence at Ohio University has grown significantly in the past few years," he said in his press release. "I'm glad to have this opportunity to speak, and we hope this will lead to the official formation of an Athens County Libertarian Party."

Athens News: www.athensnews.com