When eminent domain is eminently unfair: NWITimes.com, Munster IN, 1/14/07

by Mark Kiesling

With all apologies to the screenwriters of "Casablanca," it doesn't take much to see that the problems of four little homeowners on Summit Street in Crown Point don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.

Back about 2004, the city decided it wanted the four properties just east of Main Street, saying it planned to widen Summit and improve traffic flow. Using a court-tested procedure known as eminent domain, it began proceedings to acquire the three homes and a duplex.

Eminent domain allows a government body to grab your property if it can be shown that doing so is in the public interest. The interstate was built on eminent domain.

Improving traffic flow by widening Summit was definitely in the public interest as Crown Point continues to grow in residential and business size.

Although Summit was repaved and new curbs put in, it's still only one lane in either direction at Main Street (plus the turn lane, which was there before). So what was all this about "widening?"

So much baloney, apparently. But why?

Well ... the old Merz Machine Works on North Main has been replaced by a strip mall, and the strip mall has an asphalt parking lot that needs a place for rainwater to go. So a retention pond was dug on the land where the houses once stood. An entrance to the strip mall also was cut into the Summit Street land.

So the demolition of the three homes and the duplex benefited a developer, who put a Starbucks on the corner and thus brought civilization to Crown Point.

And the homeowners? Three of the four got market value for their homes, which allowed them to try to stay in Crown Point by taking out bigger mortgages. A new law, signed by Gov. Mitch Daniels on March 24, 2006, gives homeowners 150 percent of market value plus relocation costs and was in the works when the duplex owner settled for more than his building was worth.

That law was a direct result of a June 23, 2005, U.S. Supreme Court decision that said government may take land by eminent domain even if it benefits private economic development and not for "public use."

Had that been the law of the land in 2004, Crown Point would not have needed to go through the charade of saying it was taking the homes to widen Summit Street when no such widening was planned.

It's unlikely, even unfathomable, that the U.S. Supreme Court would have considered what effect its ruling would have on four property owners 1,000 miles away. But that's the way things are. Laws and rulings are too often made without consideration (or concern) for the effects on real people.

Here's looking at your Starbucks, kid.

NWITimes.com, Munster IN: http://nwitimes.com