Jewish World Review April 16, 2002 / 5 Iyar, 5762
http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | In Madison, Ill., the Gateway International Raceway wanted a parking lot. So it hired a quasi-government agency to seize the land. In an important victory for property owners everywhere, the Illinois Supreme Court has said no.
Four years ago, the Raceway decided that it needed more parking. So it went to the Southwestern Illinois Development Agency (SWIDA) which, in the name of "development," proposed taking the property of the next-door metal recycling facility. The U.S. Constitution requires that any taking be for a "public use," but here government sought to grab land at the behest of a private party. So SWIDA claimed the property seizure would ease traffic congestion, which was in the public interest.
By that standard, there is little that doesn't count. Taking my neighbor's land so I could build a bigger house would ease traffic congestion.
What made SWIDA's action particularly outrageous was that it charged a 6 percent commission for what it forthrightly termed "private condemnation." And Gateway went to SWIDA because, it admitted, even after SWIDA's cut, the condemned land was cheaper than building a multi-story garage on its own property. In short, both private company and government agency stole private land for profit.
The Washington-based Institute for Justice sued and the state supreme court has now held that the taking was primarily for Gateway's private benefit. Yet abusive eminent domain remains a problem in almost every state.
IJ, which handled National City Environmental's case, also successfully fought the New Jersey "development agency" which sought to seize the home of Vera Coking, an Atlantic City widow who had lived in her home for 37 years, to build a parking lot for Donald Trump's casino. There, too, the courts ultimately said no, explaining that any public benefit would be "overwhelmed by the private benefit."
Yet the Mississippi Development Authority still is attempting to take three homes as part of a project for a parking lot and access road for a Nissan auto plant. Says MDA executive director James Burns: "It's not that Nissan is going to leave if we don't get that land. What's important is the message it would send to other companies if we are unable to do what we said we would do."
The Mississippi Supreme Court has halted eminent domain proceedings to review the issue. The New London Development Corp., a private agency, is attempting to take seven homes in New London, Conn. Half of them would be torn down for parking lots for new office buildings; the rest have been condemned for "park support," which could be more parking or retail stores.
The corporation could build the same amount of office space, of which there is presently a glut, with the same amount of parking, without taking the homes. But the owners, one of whom has lived in her house 83 years, don't have the same clout as the Italian Dramatic Club, a social club which sits next to one of the condemned homes. It was exempted, since to take it, acknowledged one corporation employee, would be "politically sensitive."
Another pending IJ case finds Mesa, Ariz., attempting to seize a family-owned brake shop to give to a developer to construct an Ace Hardware store. Unfortunately, these are merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The Castle Coalition, a national network of citizen activists, has published "Government Theft: The Top 10 Abuses of Eminent Domain" to highlight the worst cases of inappropriate government takings. The Terrible Ten include the attempt by Riviera Beach, Fla., to condemn 1,700 buildings and displace 5,000 residents to build a commercial and industrial development. Merriam, Kan., seized the property of a used-car dealership to sell the land to a neighboring BMW dealership so that it could expand. In New Cassel, N.Y., the North Hempstead Community Development Agency grabbed land from St. Luke's Pentecostal Church to use for private retail development. Hurst, Texas, seized 127 homes to allow construction of a mall.
Observes Dana Berliner, author of the report and a senior IJ attorney: "More than 100 cases have come to our attention, and we hear about new private condemnations every week, but many more go unreported or are settled by property owners who understandably cave in to the enormous threat of condemnation." Although many people believe that property rights belong to the rich, in all of these cases, property rights are protecting the poor and middle class. Property rights are a basic human right, the best defense for those with the least political influence.
After years of neglect, the courts are finally reinvigorating the Fifth Amendment's restrictions on eminent domain. Only continuing judicial vigilance will limit abusive government takings that occur every
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