Does a city government have the right to make you move, to take your home and give your property to someone else largely because the other guy has more money and will pay more taxes than you do?
Believe it or not, the answer is yes. At the moment, anyway.
Should governments have this power? That's something the U.S. Supreme Court is deciding.
The Supreme Court heard a case on Feb. 22 that will go a long way toward deciding how much respect local, state and federal governments have to afford the property rights of citizens - and, in fact, whether there really is such a thing as property rights in America. The right to own property really doesn't mean much if your neighbors can easily take it away from you.
The case in question is called Kelo v. New London. It involves a Connecticut city that used its power of eminent domain, forcing homeowners to sell their property to the city, so it could turn the land over to developers to build fancy condominiums and shops.
Under the U.S. Constitution, the government has the power to take people's property for public use as long as the owner is justly compensated. The "public use" claimed in the case before the Supreme Court is "economic development."
"Economic development," of course, boils down to generating more money. The whole idea of economic development is to increase economic activity, which translates simply into having more money change hands. The use of eminent domain for economic development boils down to taking land being used by one person for one thing so that it can be used by another person for another thing. It's a form of reverse Robin Hood - taking from the poor to give to the rich.
Our notion of "public use" has more to do with essential infrastructure - roads, sewer, runways and such. It seems a terrible abuse of government power to boot somebody off his land simply because you think someone else can put it to a higher and better use. Doing this also assumes government officials can correctly pick the highest and best use and that they can correctly guess what uses will produce the greatest economic activity over the long-term. That's provably wrong.
Reading up on this issue in recent weeks, we were surprised to learn, however, that the courts have for decades generally endorsed the use of eminent domain for urban renewal economic development. The Kelo case represents an opportunity to redefine - and limit - the government's ability to essentially redistribute property to suit its purposes. Keep your fingers crossed that the Supreme Court will honor the spirit of the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution before ruling.
If a developer wants your house because he thinks he can make a buck with it, then he should make you an offer. If you say no, he should up the ante. If you still won't sell, the developer should find another piece of land. We shouldn't let the developer sic the government on you.
The Missoulian: www.missoulian.com