Whose domain is eminent? The (Greenville MI) Daily News, 7/8/05

Guest Column

By Arthur M. Compton

If there is anything in our Constitution that with some justification is called a necessary evil, it can probably be found in the Fifth Amendment.

That amendment says, in effect, that governments — such as cities — may seize the property of private citizens as long as (1) the seized property is to be put to public use and (2) the owner shall receive "just compensation." That legal process is known as "eminent domain."

It seems to have been generally agreed, until now, that public use meant to create things like roads and bridges that would be used and owned by the general public.

The term "just compensation" can be argued endlessly without resolution and so probably has had a negative effect on public opinion, which is that the seller, under duress, has been "taken" along with his property.

My only observation of the process at work is the experience of a friend whose home was involved in a highway widening project some years ago in Grand Rapids. Eminent domain descended upon him and made him an offer. His home, an elderly piece of property, had been for sale for some time without success.

The city offer was the best he had so he quickly accepted. Ray feels that he won that transaction. Having seen his new modern home on Hake Street, I'm inclined to agree with him.

What has brought eminent domain to the front page today is the recent decision of the city of New London, Conn., to make, through the use of eminent domain, certain properties available to a development for a privately owned office complex. In time, this will provide an increase in tax revenue for the city.

The New London owners appealed to the Connecticut Supreme Court, contending that tax revenue did not constitute public use. The court disagreed. A later appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court agreed with the lower court.

I dislike the courts' decisions because it seems inappropriate that either private of corporate profit should play a part in eminent domain negotiations. Both courts have stretched the term "use" out of all semblance to that intended originally.

However, commenting on the amendment in its present form, the World Book Encyclopedia says, "In some cases, governments give the power of eminent domain to corporations that intend to use privately owned land for projects that benefit the public."

Possibly it was that precedent that influenced both courts in their New London decisions.

The Daily News: www.thedailynews.cc

Arthur M. Compton is a retired consulting engineer