Eminent domain rarely used but necessary: South Bend (IN) Tribune, 7/10/05

Point of View

By Matthew C Greller

The recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, Kelo v. City of New London, is good for the residents of Indiana and reaffirms their local elected officials' ability to bring jobs and a vibrant economy to cities and towns.

Eminent domain is a rarely-used government ability provided by the United States Constitution that lets a city or town acquire property with just compensation and relocation expenses provided to property owners. It may be used only for the public good, with stringent review and public input, and in Indiana, the condition of blight must first be found. While government leaders use it only as a last resort, eminent domain has helped leaders elected to serve all members of their community build roads, lay sewer lines and create economic development.

It is important to understand that this decision does not provide "new" or "unprecedented" powers to government. It simply reaffirms that creating jobs and a strong economy is one of the many responsibilities of government, and that eminent domain may be used to provide a strong economy.

Eminent domain gave leaders in Mishawaka, for example, a chance to revitalize the economy, steer their community in a positive direction, and improve the quality of life for residents when they provided a location for the AM General plant.

Imagine that you live in a community that had recently experienced the closure of a major business resulting in the loss of jobs. Imagine that your community is in economic distress, with double-digit unemployment. Now, imagine the opportunity to remedy that distress.

The principle of eminent domain is designed to achieve the greater community good. Without eminent domain, a small group of people could stand in the way of, or demand unreasonable compensation to permit, a project that could lift a neighborhood or an entire community out of economic distress. This is particularly important for communities that need to increase jobs or strengthen property tax bases, where a single project — a factory, a retail and housing center, a business complex — could make the difference between economic recovery or austerity.

Eminent domain usually is not necessary. In the Supreme Court Kelo decision, for example, just 1.5 out of the 90 acres needed for a project was in question. Every other property owner saw the public benefit of the city's project and why the land was needed and agreed to sell.

Displacing residents from their homes is serious business and used only as a last resort by the people elected to lead a community. Cities and towns must have a well-conceived plan for exercise of eminent domain — it cannot be administered in an unjust or haphazard fashion.

Locally, the Indiana Association of Cities and Towns is working with state lawmakers to establish legislation that would protect residents and continue government's ability to work for the public good.

Those who assert that public officials will be newly emboldened by this Supreme Court decision to indiscriminately "seize" property for the economic gain of private interests have a fundamental misunderstanding of local government, and of the intent of local elected officials.

Responsible cities and towns historically have, and will continue to judiciously balance the rights of private property owners with the economic interests of the entire community. To deny local governments the tool of eminent domain is to deny residents the opportunities to survive and flourish, to deny jobs for residents of economically depressed cities and towns, and to deny quality of life to everyone in Indiana.

South Bend Tribune: www.southbendtribune.com

Matthew C. Greller is the executive director of the Indiana Association of Cities and Towns