Eminent domain a step too far: Chicago IL Daily Herald, 10/1/06

On Tuesday, the village board in Arlington Heights [IL] is expected to consider a proposal to begin eminent domain proceedings against International Plaza and a handful of adjacent parcels on the south side of town.

For a number of years, village officials have targeted the area for a major economic redevelopment that would be centered around a SuperTarget store.

The board’s interest in improving the village economy is laudable and its interest in increasing tax revenue is understandable. And no one could dispute the notion that the site of the old gas station at the northeast corner of Golf and Arlington Heights roads desperately needs to be cleaned up.

But please, folks, this is reaching.

While no doubt well-intended, the exercise of eminent domain authority in this case would in effect be an abuse of government power.

The International Plaza is not the most vibrant shopping district in the suburbs, but neither is it the most dilapidated. It clearly is not, as the village board declared for legal purposes four years ago, blighted.

Blighted? Oh for goodness sake, does anyone genuinely believe that? Blighted describes parts of Cicero, parts of Gary. Blighted describes the riverfronts some communities have tried to re-energize with casinos. Blighted does not describe Arlington Heights, and it does not describe this plaza.

There are several healthy businesses in the shopping district, not thriving perhaps but not dying. Dozens of merchants have invested their savings and their hearts into it. Many of us believe that rather than being a detriment, the plaza adds flavor and texture to the community.

“For half a century,” the Institute for Justice declares on its Web site, “unrestrained local and state governments have taken private property not for ‘public uses’ such as for bridges or public buildings as permitted by the Constitution, but for private businesses in the name of ‘economic development.’”

This may be another example.

It is unclear whether the village will win if it pursues the case with inevitable and expensive legal battles through the courts.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in a widely publicized 5-4 vote a year ago on an eminent domain case in New London, Connecticut, ruled in favor of an exceedingly broad definition of “public use.”

In her dissent, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor warned that because of the ruling, the “specter of condemnation hangs over all property. Nothing is to prevent the State from replacing any Motel 6 with a Ritz-Carlton, any home with a shopping mall, or any farm with a factory.”

On the other hand, Illinois statutes on eminent domain are thankfully more stringent and municipalities must meet tougher standards in order to exercise eminent domain for economic development purposes.

In the end, we hope the village board bases its vote not so much on its legal case, but on its moral case.

All things considered, would redevelopment of that shopping center be nice? Possibly. Is it necessary? Probably not.

Chicago IL Daily Herald: http://www.dailyherald.com