12/17/2005

Eminent domain fears are exaggerated: Minneapolis (MN) Star-Tribune, 12/9/05

Editorial
They're mostly red meat for the talk-radio crowd

What seemed a routine Supreme Court decision affirming the land-condemnation powers used by cities for 50 years and rooted deeply in the Fifth Amendment has ignited a national firestorm.

Few object to the justly compensated "taking" of private property for roads, schools and other direct public purposes. What bothers people is the use of eminent domain to benefit private development and the public tax base. But while that sounds alarming at first hearing, it's much ado about not very much. Mostly the case has provided an opening for right-wing property-rights groups to sow fears about big, bad government. "Your home could be next!" is a popular warning. Left-wing activists, too, have joined the chorus, vilifying cities as co-conspirators with wealthy developers to gentrify urban America.

Truth is, the court's decision in Kelo vs. New London, issued last June, changed federal law not one iota. What has changed is the fearful hype on both extremes. Already the U.S. House of Representatives has passed a bill to dissuade local governments from using eminent domain powers if developers benefit. Texas, Alabama and Delaware have passed new restrictive laws; 30 other states, including Minnesota, are eager to follow.

But everyone should take a deep breath and consider the consequences. Yes, some abuses have occurred, but there is no epidemic of abuse. Eminent domain is used sparingly in most states, including Minnesota. Its real value lies not in its execution but in its leverage. Just having the authority to condemn blighted land has been enough to help hundreds of cities reclaim abandoned industrial waterfronts, derelict warehouses and substandard residences for the greater good.

Those in Minnesota eager to impose new restrictions must explain why it's not in the state's best interest to have redevelopment projects like St. Louis Park's $150 million Excelsior & Grand. "We didn't condemn property, but everyone knew we had the big stick," said former Mayor Gail Dorfman, now a Hennepin County commissioner.

Opponents must explain why similar projects in Anoka and Chaska shouldn't happen. Anoka is condemning six properties to move ahead with a $90 million conversion of an old industrial area near a future commuter rail station. Chaska is using eminent domain to replace six derelict, flood-prone houses with 51 condos as part of downtown revitalization. Officials say neither project could go ahead without eminent domain. Private developers will profit in both cases, but so will most citizens. Is it responsible to let one justly compensated holdout prevent a wider public benefit? That's the main question.

Since 1998, only 5 percent of Minnesota cities have condemned property for redevelopment purposes, according to a recent survey from the League of Minnesota Cities. During that span, condemnations accounted for 0.037 percent of all real estate transactions. What critics really have here is a solution in search of a problem.

Here's the biggest consequence: Reducing eminent domain's value will tip the balance even further toward sprawl. That means saddling the state with extra costs for infrastructure, adding to the private costs of driving and traffic congestion, and sticking taxpayers with the social costs of urban neglect.

Before jumping on the property-rights bandwagon, Minnesota lawmakers should put aside the fears of a few and consider soberly whether they really want to make it harder for their hometowns to revive and renew themselves.


Minneapolis Star-Tribune: www.startribune.com