EDITOR’S VIEWPOINT/Twelve little words
In the homestretch of the national presidential race where neither candidate paid much attention to the obvious needs of cities and counties, another branch of our government decided to consider a significant change in the way local governments can use eminent domain.
Early next year, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to decide on a case involving the local government in New London, Conn., and a resident who owns one of the homes the city wants to take. The eminent domain controversy in this case lies in New London’s plans to hand over the condemned property — which the city deems economically distressed — to a private developer whose redevelopment would include new residences, offices and retail space.
Decades have passed since the court last ruled on a similar case. Until a 1954 Supreme Court decision that sided with the District of Columbia’s plan to hand over property to a private developer, eminent domain was used mostly to further public transportation or build parks. The 1954 decision broadened the ability of local governments to take property and, in some cases, to work with private interests to develop the property.
Since then, some feel that this ruling has created a new class of robber barons, developers who realize that eminent domain is one way to take property when the owners won’t sell. The Institute for Justice, the law firm representing the New London homeowners, claims that between 1998 and 2002, more than 10,000 condemnations for private-to-private transfers of property were threatened or realized.
Nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation. Urban blight did not exist when those 12 words about eminent domain were written into the Fifth Amendment. But today, rotting sewer systems and crumbling buildings are a genuine threat to too many cities. While the importance of New London’s case cannot be underestimated, neither can we continue to ignore the struggle of many communities to remain viable.
However, the fact that the city is directly transferring the homeowners’ land to a developer is a large issue in this case. While there are numerous examples of communities that have been able to develop and revitalize failing areas by using public funding, local governments also should be allowed to work with private developers when the circumstances warrant it.
The earlier court decisions appear to have taken into account the changes that have occurred in our communities, allowing them to define the critical concepts involved here, including public use and just compensation. The Constitution is a living document, adaptable to the world we are living in. Consequently, the Supreme Court should decide to allow New London to work with private developers to breathe some new life into the dying parts of its community.