By Joel Kurth
Always emotional but sometimes vital, eminent domain may yet have a future in Michigan. Just how much, though, is in dispute.
In a closely watched case Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that local governments can condemn land and compensate owners for private ventures such as shopping centers and office complexes. Michigan economic development experts cheered the decision, but lawyers said it won't impact the state's strict laws.
"It's clear that local officials know local interests better than federal judges, but it's unclear how this case will impact Michigan," said Arnold Weinfeld, director of state affairs for the Michigan Municipal League.
Property advocates said the ruling creates a clear exception for Michigan and other states that already have laws barring taking land for private use. In a landmark 2004 decision, the Michigan Supreme Court reversed 20 years of precedent and found the state constitution only allows condemnation for public projects such as parks.
"Thank God we're protected in Michigan," said Alan Ackerman, a Troy attorney who represented property owners in the case.
The U.S. Supreme Court case involved efforts in New London, Conn., to demolish houses for a Pfizer Corp. research center and Coast Guard museum.
If nothing else, the decision will lead to more Michigan court cases on the issue, said Kurt Metzger, research director of Wayne State University's Center for Urban Studies.
Michigan ranked fourth nationwide in government condemnations from 1998 to 2002. Detroit was first among cities during that time, according to a study by the Institute for Justice, a Washington D.C. Libertarian policy group.
Legally, governments can take land and compensate owners for the public good. Defining what that means, however, has sparked more than 25 years of litigation.
To some, only government-owned projects should qualify. To others, companies that bring in hundreds of jobs and tax dollars benefit the public just as much if not more.
"Communities are organic realities living, breathing things and when you break them up, it's very serious," said Tom Olechowski, who lives in the Poletown neighborhood of Detroit that was broken up when the city cleared land for a General Motors Corp. plant in the 1980s. "Government should only take land for the public good and there's no question that was not the case with Poletown."
Michigan courts disagreed in a 1981 ruling that cleared the way for the plant. The decision impacted public policy for decades.
Among other projects, Detroit condemned land to build Comerica Park and Ford Field.
Last year, Michigan's highest court reversed the Poletown decision and barred Wayne County from using eminent domain to seize less than 50 privately owned acres for the Pinnacle Aeropark, a planned 1,300 acre office park and hotel complex in Romulus.
"Sometimes, condemnation is the only avenue for assembling land for private developers in the urban core," said Mulugetta Birru, the county's director of economic development.
Writing for the majority, Justice John Paul Stevens footnoted last year's Michigan Supreme Court case and noted that nothing "precludes any state from placing further restrictions on its exercise of the takings power."
The exemption clearly means Michigan's limits remain, but that doesn't mean some cities won't still try to condemn land for shopping centers, said Lee J. Strang, a professor at Ave Maria School of Law.
"If you live in Grosse Pointe, you don't have anything to worry about. It's people whose houses aren't that valuable and don't produce that much tax dollars who should watch out," he said.
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