Don’t tinker with eminent domain law: (Des Moines IA) Business Record, 1/22/06

Our View

There’s a classic David vs. Goliath battle brewing in the Legislature over the government’s use of eminent domain. In the end, it may not amount to much more than a lot of bluster about a power history shows hasn’t been abused much in Iowa.

Oh, the proposed law will play well in rural Iowa. It’ll play well with entrepreneurial mom-and-pop business owners like some of those in the East Village area who fear failure to bring their buildings up to standards set by new developers may result in their losing their properties in a condemnation battle. It’ll play with libertarian-thinking people who like to keep the government at arm’s length. For all of that chest-thumping on behalf of the little guy, though, a bill in the Iowa Senate that would sharply limit a government’s ability to condemn land looks more like election-year grandstanding than actual problem-solving.

In theory, private property rights, engrained in our national psyche as one of the most basic of human rights, are worth protecting at all costs. The problem with that line of thinking is that it doesn’t address how one party’s property rights are infringed upon by an adjoining owner’s decision to allow property to exist in squalor. Looking at the issue through that lens, it’s hard to argue against eminent domain when it’s used to acquire truly blighted areas so run down that they inhibit development around them, thus spurring redevelopment for public purposes or even another private development that lends stability to a neighborhood. It’s also hard to argue that its use isn’t improving downtown Des Moines’ west side, where the Western Gateway Park was a stimulus for impressive private development projects like the Meredith Corp. expansion and the Nationwide-Allied Insurance, ING Insurance and Wells Fargo Financial buildings.

It should be understood that a government’s condemnation power is effective only when used sparingly and other means of acquiring land have been exhausted. That’s been the tradition in Des Moines and throughout Iowa, and there simply is no evidence, anecdotal or empirical, to suggest that local government officials suddenly will embark on a reckless spree to acquire land for retail stores, manufacturers, hospitality businesses and other economic activities.

But to strip local governments of the power of eminent domain because they might eventually abuse it seems unnecessarily harsh. Talking about it should be warning enough for them to stay on course : Use eminent domain wisely and sparingly, or lose the power altogether.

Des Moines Business Record: www.businessrecord.com