6/12/2005

'Public use' could trump private rights: Orlando (FL) Sentinel, 6/9/05

By Mike Lafferty

After hearing a brief description, Dana Berliner feels fairly certain that I live amid blight.

My neighborhood, for example, has dirt roads, which could qualify as "defective or inadequate" roadways under Florida's definition of blight.

The lots are mostly 2½ acres, which might mean my neighborhood has an "inadequate and outdated building density pattern."

"No problem designating you" as blighted, concluded Berliner, a senior attorney with the Institute for Justice, a civil-liberties organization.

Of course, Florida law is used so broadly that there are few places that you could say with certainty are not blighted.

Which makes life very convenient for local governments that wish to create redevelopment districts and need an official finding of blight to do so.

Redevelopment districts are places deemed as run down and in need of money and attention.

It seems like such a worthy cause.

Too bad this zeal to rescue downtrodden downtowns and ragged resort areas have devolved into government-sanctioned thuggery.

Berliner's 2-year-old report — "Public Power, Private Gain" — was an exhaustive study of governments' use of eminent domain power to force the sale of private property.

This might not seem so bad if the seized property went toward a park or a road or a library or even a stinky sewer plant.

Reasonable people agree that is what the Constitution's Fifth Amendment must have intended in allowing governments to take private property for "public use."

Instead, governments are forcing sales and handing property over to wealthy guys who want to build malls or hotels or offices that will generate truckloads of tax money.

"Public use," it seems, now extends to "economic development" and "making developers even richer than they already are."

In New London, Conn., "public use" meant taking an old neighborhood to make way for shops and housing more suitable to the suits who work at Pfizer's nearby research headquarters.

Not everyone in New London went quietly, filing a lawsuit that went to the U.S. Supreme Court, where an attorney for the city argued that seizing a Motel 6 and turning it over to Ritz-Carlton is OK.

The supremes are supposed to decide soon, but some places are not waiting.

In Utah, where one city tried to take homes to make room for a Wal-Mart, lawmakers recently approved a law restricting the use of eminent domain in redevelopment areas.

Which brings us to Volusia County, where Daytona Beach is slobbering over a California developer's $115 million plans for a new lodging and entertainment complex that will provide happiness, prosperity and additional tax revenue.

All that stands in the way are a couple of pesky property owners who have a problem with Daytona Beach ordering them to sell for the benefit of a private developer.

The property owners are scheduled to get their day in court later this month.

The stakes? If Daytona Beach wins, it gets a shining city on the ocean.

The rest of us lose a little more freedom.


Orlando Sentinel: www.orlandosentinel.com