Officials: Eminent domain a last resort: Rockford (IL) Register Star, 7/3/05

Some Machesney Park residents are feeling the pinch of the government’s power to seize land

By Pat Milhizer

You shouldn’t worry about losing your home to the next big-box store or hotel coming to the Rock River Valley.

Public officials and private developers say eminent domain, a legal maneuver that makes homeowners cringe but can lure more tax dollars for communities, will remain a last resort regardless of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that bolsters the government’s powers.

But try telling that to Nora St. Germain.

She’s losing her home to a retail development.

“It stinks. I don’t think it’s fair, but there ain’t nothing you can do,” said St. Germain, a 60-year-old Machesney Park resident who stands to lose her mobile home by the end of the year so a retail center can be built near Alpine Road and Illinois 173.

“There is no freedom. This is Grandma’s house, and it ain’t going to be Grandma’s house no more,” she said.

Local governments usually file eminent domain against property owners who won’t give up their land or negotiate a fair price when they’re in the way of new highways, schools, government buildings and other public services.

But new weight has been thrown into the sensitive practice.

A split U.S. Supreme Court ruling June 23 supported the government’s ability to acquire homes for commercial development — such as shopping malls or sports arenas.

The court was asked to decide public-use rights protected by the Fifth Amendment. And it gave local governments the power to decide whether citizens would be better served by private commercial projects that displace landowners.

Homeowners and property rights activists reacted strongly to the ruling — concerned that, essentially, nobody really has control over land.

But despite the new powers given to them by the court, a county economic development director, four local government attorneys and five developers in the Rock River Valley suggest that there won’t be a spike in eminent domain cases.

“The process works in that there’s not just legal controls but political controls,” Rockford city attorney Patrick Hayes said. “If a mayor used this improperly, the public is going to state its opinion at the ballot box.”

Still, a state statute lets local governments use eminent domain for economic development when an area passes state standards to be declared blighted.

“I don’t think it’s going to change a thing,” said Chuck Thompson, president of William Charles Investments. “I don’t think what was done there was anything new.”

“Cities really are using eminent domain less than they did 10, 15 years ago,” Thompson said.

“They’re finding it extremely expensive. ... We, as a private developer, wouldn’t want to go down that road. It would take too much time to use that tool or encourage a city, state or county to use that tool.”

On its face, eminent domain for private projects is a good thing for local officials.

The new developments promise jobs and transactions that pour tax revenue into government coffers.

Nevertheless, state Sen. Steve Rauschenberger, R-Elgin, will introduce a bill this fall that would require the Illinois General Assembly and governor to approve eminent domain cases for private development.

“Economic eminent domain has been used to pressure private-property owners into selling their property for less money than they want to sell it for,” said Rauschenberger, a potential candidate for governor next year. “Taxpayers shouldn’t pay taxes to support a local government and then have that power turned against them.”

So far, Machesney Park paid a total of $137,000 for two single-family homes in the area bounded by Orlando Street, Illinois 173, Story Book Lane and North Alpine Road.

In April, the Village Board passed a resolution 4-2 that authorized eminent domain if negotiations with property owners fail.

The Supreme Court decision has no bearing on Machesney Park’s effort to acquire the remaining 31 properties for an undetermined retail development, according to Village Attorney Tom Green. The village bolstered its effort by designating the area blighted, an issue not addressed in the court’s decision.

The characterization bothers St. Germain’s grandson, 17-year-old Derek Nichol.

Derek and his grandfather rebuilt the home about a decade ago, he said, turning a three-bedroom dwelling into a two-bedroom home so his grandmother could have a larger living room. Since then, they also replaced the floors, windows, bathroom and rebuilt two sheds.

“It took so much to build this. And apparently they just want to come and rip it all out, like it’s garbage,” Nichol said.

Noelia Garza, 57, lives nearby in a four-bedroom, one-story home with a basement. She, too, has to prepare to move by the end of the year.

“To tell you the truth, I didn’t think I was going to spend my whole life in my house, but I wasn’t prepared for this,” said Garza, a machine operator who has lived on Orlando Street for 19 years.

The neighborhood is part of a tax increment financing district Machesney Park created in 1991 to lure retail businesses. The district helps redevelop the area because, after it’s established, any increase in property taxes goes to development efforts within the district instead of funding schools and other taxing bodies.

“Of course, some properties within the area, individually, are OK,” Green said. “But as an area, it saw very little increase in assessed value and has poor infrastructure.”

Forcing somebody out of a well-kept home because they live near what’s been designated a blighted area is part of the problem, Rauschenberger said.

“Blight has been so broadly defined,” Rauschenberger said, “that pristine lakefront in central Illinois has been determined to be blighted.”

Rockford Register Star: www.rrstar.com