Beware Eminent Domain Ploys: Hartford (CT) Courant, 10/18/05


By Scott Bullock, Institute for Justice

Connecticut legislators will soon have an opportunity to end eminent domain abuse in their state. With Connecticut being the home of perhaps the most universally despised decision in recent U.S. Supreme Court history - Kelo vs. City of New London - the nation will be watching to see if Connecticut stops the abuse of eminent domain for private business development.

Unfortunately for Connecticut people, most of the legislative proposals under consideration fall very far short of the mark in protecting property owners.

Connecticut has perhaps the most sweeping law in the country authorizing the use of eminent domain for private development. The primary law by which Connecticut cities and towns may abuse eminent domain is Chapter 132, the statute at issue in the Kelo case. Unlike condemnations for so-called blighted areas, which must meet statutorily defined standards, the eminent domain power for economic development applies anywhere and to all types of property, including homes and small businesses. Under Chapter 132, two or more parcels of property can be condemned for a "business" purpose, defined as "any commercial, financial or retail enterprise." This is a breathtakingly broad authorization for the use of eminent domain for private business development.

The authorization for eminent domain should be removed from Chapter 132. Moreover, Connecticut's urban renewal laws should be tightened to ensure that they are not used as a back-door vehicle to gain property for private development.

All other powers and methods available to promote economic development would remain untouched if eminent domain authority was removed under these laws. The use of eminent domain for traditional public uses, such as roads, parks and reservoirs, would remain in place.

Supporters of eminent domain, such as the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, have adopted a tactic of pushing for meaningless changes to the law so they can claim that home and small-business owners are now protected. People should not fall for these ploys.

One such tactic is proposing a property rights ombudsman. Another is revising procedures for the preparation, modification, approval, etc., of redevelopment projects. Of course, such proposals do not end the use of eminent domain for private economic development. They simply require that local governments and planning bodies produce more paperwork and jump through more procedural hoops.

These so-called solutions might be better called the Full Employment for Planners Act. Better planning will not prevent the use of eminent domain for private commercial development. And although it is not a bad idea to have an ombudsman help property owners in eminent domain battles, that alone will not solve the problem. Indeed, a property rights ombudsman would have no power to stop local officials from taking homes for a shopping mall or small businesses for national chain stores.

Connecticut has an opportunity to reverse years of exploitation of the eminent domain power. The courts have failed to protect the constitutional rights of Connecticut residents, but the General Assembly can protect them from an unholy alliance between local officials and powerful private interests. Most of the proposals the legislature is considering fail utterly to protect property owners, but there is still time to pass meaningful eminent domain reform.

The Hartford Courant: www.courant.com

Scott Bullock is a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, the public interest law firm that represented the property owners in Kelo vs. New London