Your vote can tame eminent domain Nov. 7: Portsmouth NH Herald, 10/9/06

When a sharply divided U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that the city of New London, Conn., could bulldoze residents' homes to make way for more lucrative private development, the majority of American citizens were alarmed and state legislatures across the country took notice.

The ruling vastly expanded the definition of "public use" under which a municipality could forcibly take land through a process known as eminent domain.

Former Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who voted against New London, sounded the alarm in her written dissent.

"Any property may now be taken for the benefit of another private party, but the fallout from this decision will not be random," O'Connor wrote. "The beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms. As for the victims, the government now has license to transfer property from those with fewer resources to those with more. The Founders cannot have intended this perverse result."

A "perverse result" took place in Portsmouth in the late 1960s and early 1970s when urban renewal in the name of economic expansion razed the homes of the largely Italian community in the city's North End. The wounds from that mistake are still fresh in the minds of many city residents.

"We were thrown out, given $21,000, which wasn't much even in those days," recalls Jim Splaine, now a state representative for Portsmouth. "It was a bad chapter in Portsmouth history."

The Supreme Court based its ruling on the wording of the Connecticut state Constitution, which was not clear when it came to eminent domain.

That is why, when you go to the polls in November, you will have a question on your ballot asking you whether to amend the New Hampshire Constitution to strengthen the rights of private property owners.

We heartily support this amendment and applaud the Legislature for swiftly approving a simple amendment that will be easily understood by all who take the time to vote.

The amendment would simply add the following sentence to the New Hampshire Constitution: "No part of a person's property shall be taken by eminent domain and transferred, directly or indirectly, to another person if the taking is for the purpose of private development or other private use of the property."

This amendment would, in no way, impede municipalities from acquiring land for true public uses such as roadways, schools, utilities, etc. Nor would it stop municipalities from negotiating in good faith with private property owners to obtain land needed for projects that are in the public interest but not necessarily eligible for taking by eminent domain. This amendment will simply put the burden back on municipalities to prove a property is needed for public use and narrows the definition of public use to protect private property owners from municipal abuses.

For good reason, it is not easy to amend the N.H. Constitution. To pass, this amendment will require approval by two-thirds of all who vote on Nov. 7.

We urge our readers and all New Hampshire citizens to inform themselves on this important subject. Once informed, we are certain you will support this amendment and vote yes. As Susette Kelo, whose home was taken by New London, said during a recent visit to the Granite State: "If you don't think your home is at risk, remember, neither did I just eight years ago."

Portsmouth NH Herald: http://www.seacoastonline.com