By Bill Frist, United States Senate
If the city of Norwood gets its way in a case currently before the Ohio Supreme Court, senior citizens Carl and Joy Gamble may lose their home so a private real estate developer can build a shopping mall, some offices, and a luxury apartment complex.
I have some pretty clear thoughts about the case: The Gambles should keep their home and the developer should either build around it or cancel the development plans altogether.
That won't happen easily. Under one recent Supreme Court decision, local governments can now seize private property and turn it over to private real estate developers. While communities need to balance development needs and citizens' constitutional private property rights, Norwood's decision to take homes this way may signify a troubling trend: governments routinely seizing private property for economic development purposes.
PROVIDING PUBLIC BENEFITS
Of course, government does sometimes need to seize private property. For hundreds of years, indeed, it has done so through power called eminent domain. If a city or state needs a new road, school, park or even sewage plant, the local government should not face impossible obstacles in taking private land and paying the property's owners a fair market price. While it's always preferable for owners to make voluntary sales, government needs these powers to build public facilities, and both the Ohio Constitution and the U.S. Constitution grant them.
But the eminent domain powers traditionally exist to provide public benefits, not as a way of helping out developers. Supposedly, in fact, even economic development projects like Norwood's exist to clear away blight and prevent slums. But the Gambles' neighborhood, made up of well-kept homes, hardly qualified as a slum. A study that the developer paid for discovered problematic conditions where no reasonable person could ever have seen them. Norwood ultimately condemned the Gambles' house, and several others, on the basis that the neighborhood showed signs that it might one day become a slum.
Among other things, Norwood faulted dead-end streets, too-small front yards, and the fact that different families owned houses next to one another. By these standards, it appears likely that some of Cincinnati's most sought-after neighborhoods would qualify as slums or potential slums.
Several of my Senate colleagues have introduced bills to protect homeowners like Carl and Joy Gamble. My own constituents in Tennessee have written me to complain about eminent domain abuse, and I have heard disturbing stories of eminent domain abuse from places like New London, Conn., Freeport, Texas, and Longbranch, N.J. Congress will eventually need to take up legislation to address the issue.
A historically high percentage of American families - nearly 70 percent - own their homes, and most families count them as their most valuable possession and greatest repositories of wealth. Homeownership is the backbone of our nation's communities and the leading source of capital for business creation. Anything that jeopardizes homeownership also threatens the stability and future of America's neighborhoods. Quite simply, no family should ever risk losing its home because a government wants to help a private developer.
U.S. Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., is Senate majority leader. He wrote this column exclusively for The Enquirer.
Cincinnati Enquirer: http://news.enquirer.com
Bill Frist (R-TN) is Senate majority leader