The New York Times is reporting about a rash of state legislation and constitutional amendments designed to decrease eminent domain abuse thoughout the country:
The measures are in direct response to the United States Supreme Court’s 5-to-4 decision last June in a landmark property rights case from Connecticut, upholding the authority of the City of New London to condemn homes in an aging neighborhood to make way for a private development of offices, condominiums and a hotel. It was a decision that one justice, who had written for the majority, later all but apologized for.
The reaction from the states was swift and heated. Within weeks of the court’s decision, Texas, Alabama and Delaware passed bills by overwhelming bipartisan margins limiting the right of local governments to seize property and turn it over to private developers. Since then, lawmakers in three dozen other states have proposed similar restrictions and more are on the way, according to experts who track the issue.
What they seem to be ignoring is that some of these bills do relatively nothing to stop such eminent domain abuse. As I live there, let’s use Alabama as an example. Shortly after the Kelo decision, Alabama passed a supposedly tough new eminent domain law. However, it was primarly an act of political grandstanding. Here is the view of the largest independent newspaper in the state:
The term “blighted” is a loophole in Alabama’s new private property protection law big enough to drive a bulldozer through, says an attorney who lost a landmark case before the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Alabama is doing the right thing in taking a great first step,” said Dana Berliner, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm based in Washington, D.C. “Now Alabama needs to take the second step to tighten sections of the law that deal with blight.”
To be sure, there is already another land taking brewing in Birmingham. In what appears to be the beginnings of a major redevelopment in town, step one involves the city paying Wal-Mart $11,000,000 in tax revenue from the general fund (which is to be later repaid with bond money) to move into a mostly vacated mall. I went over the paperwork presented so far with one of the city counselors and there are a lot of unanswered questions, so far. The contract leaves more questions to be asked than it answers, including vagueness which could cost the city millions more.
This appears to be step one in the larger development scheme being worked behind the scenes. We are working on obtaining as much information as possible though the Open Records Act, but it is unlikely that the requested material will arrive in time to develop enough political opposition to fight the immediate issues. In a recent town hall meeting, city planners presented an area which is a combination small and larger store fronts (of which the new Wal-Mart will serve as the hub), residential areas and major thouroughfares. They described plans which would reroute roads, add parks, and totally modify the landscape of the area. Unless 100% of the property owners involved will willingly give up their homes and businesses, eminent domain (or the extortive threat thereof) will have to be used.
The mayor said the votes are already there to shove the Wal-Mart down our throats against our will. However, we managed to defeat the proposal in committee yesterday, which will probably only delay it hitting the full council by one week.
When the issue was forced on them, the mayor and the city councilperson pushing this agenda denied that eminent domain would be used. When I asked the question, it seemed to draw greater applause than anything thing else during the presentation, but the local paper seemed to omit this from their account of the meeting. However, this same councilperson used eminent domain (and gave away 10,000,000 taxpayer dollars) to build another Wal-Mart in her district a few years ago. Even the current contract before the city council has phrases imbedded in it like “…the Redevelopment Property will result in the elimination, remedy and prevention of blight and blighting factors in the project area…” and “…and will advance and implement the purposes of the Oporto-Crestwood Plan, and, accordingly, is a public use, is in the public interest…”. Future contracts dealing with future phases of this plan will certainly be scarier.
Where I come from, we know that if it looks like shit, smells like shit, and tastes like shit, we ain’t a gonna step in it — despite what The NY Times, mayor of Birmingham, or certain city counselors have to say about it.