Eminent domain laws should be revised in NH: Portsmouth (NH) Herald, 1/12/06


As a matter of philosophy, the editors of this newspaper have repeatedly dismissed the idea of amending the New Hampshire Constitution. The feeling has been that writing anything into this document would limit the options that future situations could present.

However, in view of what can only be called an activist U.S. Supreme Court decision to allow New London, Conn., to take private property via eminent domain in order to allow a private company to build for-profit enterprises, we are willing to support a carefully worded, well-crafted constitutional amendment that would prohibit state or municipal government engaging in such actions.

The Supreme Court ruling in the Kelo v. New London case centered on the city’s determination that building offices, a hotel and a conference center on a waterfront parcel where private homes were situated benefited the entire community and allowed the taking of those homes by eminent domain.

The decision so outraged the majority of New Hampshirites that a movement surfaced in Weare, N.H., the home of Supreme Court Justice David Souter, to seize property Souter owns in that community for an inn. The Associated Press reported Wednesday that the Weare town clerk had indeed received a petitioned warrant article to that effect that could be voted on at this year’s town meeting.

And state legislators, also appalled by the ruling and in an attempt to placate their constituents, have put forth one Senate bill, two House bills and three versions of a constitutional amendment this legislative session, aimed at preventing a repeat of the New London situation in New Hampshire.

All these proposals have in common an attempt to redefine "public use" so that issues such as job growth, higher tax revenues and economic development are not adequate criteria for the taking of private land.

We support these attempts to short-circuit what happened in New London. We believe this approach to economic development has been proved to be shortsighted, and we have proof of that right here in Portsmouth.

A vibrant neighborhood here in the city’s North End was leveled by what was once called "urban renewal," and while it certainly provided an expanded home for this newspaper, the destruction of private homes here has never proved to be of any value to the city or its residents.

We also believe the Supreme Court violated what had been - and remains in most places in this country - the unwritten law that private ownership of land is a sacred right and should only be undermined for public projects serving the public good. Even then, this option should be kept to an absolute minimum.

The idea that a municipal government could take privately held land for use and turn it over to for-profit development because that development could increase tax revenues is both obscene and contrary to what we believe the Founding Fathers intended.

Anything New Hampshire and Maine can do to prevent that from happening here should be done.

Portsmouth Herald: www.seacoastonline.com