Eminent domain law merits scrutiny: The (Univ of Iowa) Daily Iowan, 7/28/05

EditorialBy author

State lawmakers discussed the use of eminent domain last week, possibly previewing future proposals to limit the use of the controversial tactic. In Kelo v. New London, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 this spring that eminent domain can be used to seize land for private development. This practice has long been used to convert residential areas into government expansion projects such as new roads, but this case expanded the practice to any economic-development project.

Kelo allows cities to condemn property for any later upgrade. The court's ruling concurred with the Connecticut Supreme Court in citing that the project was "projected to create in excess of 1,000 jobs, to increase tax and other revenues, and to revitalize an economically distressed city."

Iowa legislators, led by Speaker of the House Christopher Rants, R-Sioux City, highlighted the need for restrictions on the use of eminent domain in a Des Moines Register piece published July 22. We agree with limitations on the use of eminent domain; the possibility of anyone with a more productive use of one's land in mind seizing control of the property scares us.

Based on past actions, it would be logical to assume that conservatives would favor the use of eminent domain, and creating another tool for economic development and increased property values, in higher numbers than progressives, but that has not been the case thus far. Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, widely considered to be the three most conservative members of the court, were part of the minority in the decision. And it was Republican lawmakers who most vocally voiced words of constraint in the Register piece. Our own Gov. Tom Vilsack stressed patience, emphasizing a national response may take care of the issue. Apparently, concerns over individual property rights and the scope and power of government supersede economic growth and development.

Some liberal groups oppose the ruling because of concerns that poverty-stricken and high-density housing areas would be the most likely targets of new eminent domain use, which would unfairly burden the poor.

The argument can be traced back to one's definition of the term "public use." If economic growth is included in the definition, eminent domain can and should be used to condemn property for private development. Iowa law does not explicitly ban this interpretation, which is why we are hearing calls for further limits. Already, eminent domain must be accompanied by just compensation and fair warning, and most governments have been careful to use it only in extreme cases that are easily justifiable to the public.

The policy of eminent domain sparks visceral reactions by home- and small-business owners afraid of losing their property to large industrial parks. We question whether governments can handle the power of eminent domain justly, and it is a good thing local and national legislators are responding so quickly.

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