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Jewish World Review August 3, 2001 / 14 Menachem-Av, 5761

John H. Fund

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Of grubbing and grabbing: Corporation$ and local government$ perfect "public use" -- THE Constitution allows the seizure of private property by government for "public use" so long as "just compensation" is given. But cities all over the country are transferring their power to seize land to private corporations that then use it to promote "economic development." A Connecticut trial now underway is shining some needed light on the growing number of eminent domain abuses.

Seven residents of New London, Conn. are suing to block the seizure and destruction of their homes to make way for a private real-estate development designed to take advantage of Pfizer Corp.'s adjacent new global research headquarters. Susette Kelo says the city had no right to transfer its powers of eminent domain and oversight to the New London Development Corporation, a private entity that wants to tear down a historic neighborhood to build office space, a parking lot and 80 units of upper-income housing.

The NLDC says that for the Pfizer complex to succeed the surrounding land must be enhanced with office space and amenities. The final project would revitalize New London, the sixth-poorest city in the state, and represents a "highest and best use" of the land. But the Institute of Justice, which represents the homeowners in the trial, says "if you buy that argument then constitutional rights mean nothing because a government can always find a 'better use' for anyone's property."

Property owners are offered money when their land is condemned for private use, but the compensation is often far from just. In New London, Bill Von Winkle says he can't replace the loyal customer base for his delicatessen if he moves or the good neighbors he'll lose along with his home. Another property owner will have to leave a house her family has occupied since 1901.

Richard Epstein, a University of Chicago law professor, says government also frequently lowballs its compensation offers. "You get frequent corruption as people pressure city halls to seize land on the cheap," he said. Indeed, the politically powerful often escape condemnation. In New London, the Italian Dramatic Club, a social club with influential members, was spared, while all the other privately owned properties in the area weren't.

After years of slumber, voters are waking up to the abuses eminent domain can create. Last year, 70 percent of voters in Baltimore County, Md. repealed a law giving the county government expanded power to use eminent domain for economic redevelopment. Voters in Little Rock, Ark. are trying to block the city's seizure of land for Bill Clinton's Taj Mahal of a presidential library.

The courts are also getting involved. In Bristol, Conn., the city seized a 30-acre farm because Yarde Metals wanted it in order to expand and threatened to leave town if it didn't get more land. Yarde left anyway, so the farm's owners now believe courts will give their farm back to them. Last December, a Connecticut court ruled that the city of Bridgeport had illegally seized a local yacht club and ordered it be returned to its owner. In February, a Pennsylvania court held that Montgomery County couldn't transfer its sovereign eminent domain power to a developer.

No one argues that blighted cities don't have a right to improve themselves through redevelopment. But it shouldn't happen by force, especially when private parties often stand to gain far more than the general public.

Comment on JWR contributor John H. Fund's column by clicking here.


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05/07/01: Prematurely declaring a winner wasn't the networks' worst sin in Florida
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03/09/01: Terminated
03/06/01: Leave well enough alone
02/22/01: Forgetting our heroes
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02/12/01: Clinton owes the country an explanation --- and an appology
02/06/01: How Ronald Reagan changed America
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11/13/00: The People Have Spoken: Will Gore listen?
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09/21/00: Ignore the Polls. The Campaign Isn't Over Yet

©2001, John H. Fund