Eminent domain: Used properly, it's a tool of last resort: Bay City MI Times, 10/18/07

Our View

The legal doctrine of eminent domain is rearing its ugly head around here again.

This time, MBS International Airport is suing in court to claim 155 acres of farmland for a new, $50 million passenger terminal.

It's always a touchy subject, when the government tries to take away someone's land.

But, sometimes, it's the only way to accomplish something that will benefit hundreds of thousands of people.

Out at MBS Airport near Freeland, airport officials have been in negotiations with farmer Ronald F. Krauss to buy his acreage to build a 75,000-square-foot terminal.

It has been a perfectly reasonable approach by a public airport - jointly owned by Bay County and the cities of Saginaw and Midland.

As Krauss told local newspapers in February, the two sides have been dickering over price.

With negotiations at a standoff, the airport is suing to have a court determine the fair market value that the airport should pay for the land it needs.

That's exactly how eminent domain ought to work.

The government pays a fair price for the property that is needed for the greater public good.

But in the Land of The Free - ''Don't Tread on Me'' - a lot of people get queasy when it appears that government is forcibly taking away private property.

Yet, the alternative would be to let a single person stand in the way of projects intended to benefit the majority of the people.

MBS wants a new terminal so it can get the more than 400,000 people in its service area to use the airport. That would entice more airports to use the field, and, just maybe, offer competitive fares.

That's the greater public good.

Eminent domain was used to clear wide swaths through the countryside and cities to make way for our interstate highways.

It was used to move three businesses in downtown Bay City to accommodate the new Wirt Library.

Basically, it's a legal tool of last resort.

The city of Bay City, for example, did not use eminent domain to clear the 48 acres of now-vacant land along the Saginaw River for redevelopment.

That strategy kept the city out of what was a legal gray area for eminent domain - government taking private property for private projects, such as shops and condominiums.

Yet, in several projects out East recently, government used eminent domain to take property for private development. In Kelo vs. City of New London, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the practice constitutional.

That decision ignited a national political firestorm over fears that government can take any land for almost any reason.

It gave eminent domain a dirty name.

Not that it was ever a very attractive way to acquire property.

Though, when haggling over the fair price of property stands in the way of public projects, it remains a useful way to seal a deal - well within the bounds of hundreds of years of legal custom.

For the project to expand and improve MBS International Airport, it remains a reasonable approach.

Bay City MI Times: http://www.mlive.com/columns/bctimes