06.08.2010 0

Not for sale

By Rebekah Rast –

As the adage goes, if you give a mouse a cookie he’s going to want a glass of milk. The same is true when government attempts to exercise power outside its boundaries.

Eminent domain, a process in which a state can take over private property for public use in exchange for market-value compensation, was established by our Founding Fathers as a way for America to better herself for the good of the people. It was primarily meant to be used to build roads and provide public right of ways for a growing nation.

“Eminent domain is for public use, for roads and schools,” says Christina Walsh, director of activism and coalitions for the Institute for Justice, a Washington, D.C.-based public interest law firm. “It is not simply to transfer property to someone who has more money and more power.”

Throughout the nation are cases where government at all levels is seizing property for private profit — whether it be a new shopping center, condominiums or to expand a current business. State and local governments are exercising powers beyond their limits to fund corporate welfare and for their own economic growth.

A case that received national criticism by property owners was the 2005 Supreme Court decision of Kelo vs. City of New London. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the city of New London, Connecticut, to wipe out an entire neighborhood for hotels and offices to better complement pharmaceutical company Pfizer’s new corporate facility.

Lead plaintiff, Susette Kelo’s land went to private developers to fund corporate welfare. But that’s not all. New London and Connecticut spend about $78 million to clear the land for condos and other specialty components. Four years after that decision, Pfizer decided to move out, leaving the government-seized land barren and empty. Not only was a neighborhood lost for nothing, but millions of dollars was also wasted.

“This was an unconscionable decision made by the Supreme Court,” says Bill Wilson, president of Americans for Limited Government (ALG). “Eminent domain should never be used as a power grab to benefit the wealthy and well-connected at the expense of the people.”

As this Supreme Court decision sent shockwaves around the country, many states reformed their eminent domain laws. Walsh says 43 states have taken steps to protect the rights of property owners and about half of those states have made significant reforms.

“In the wake of the Kelo decision, people found out about the abuse of power and communities starting rallying around property owners,” Walsh says. “There have been dozens of successes over the years for property owners.”

Some states still have done nothing to reform current laws dealing with eminent domain. New York is one of those states and is currently in battles to seize land from many private property owners for its own economic development.

Current New York law considers property in “blight” conditions, a condition of disrepair, to be able to be seized by eminent domain procedures. With a loose definition of what “blight” conditions look like, many corporations and cities have seized on opportunities to takeover properties they justify as “blighted.”

In the case of Kaur vs. Urban Development Corporation, there is controversial use of eminent domain by Columbia University, a private school, which wants to build a new 17-acre research campus in the West Harlem neighborhood of Manhattanville.

Manhattanville business owners’ lead attorney and former New York Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Norman Siegel was able to prove that Columbia and Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) conspired together to produce the conditions of “blight” that would then allow the ESDC to seize the property wanted by the university. He also found that many of the “blighted” buildings were already owned by Columbia and it was the university’s responsibility to clean them up. Because the university was not keeping the buildings and spaces up to code, many of the businesses in the area were forced to move out.

Last December a state appellate court struck down the ESDC’s actions as illegal. The case was then heard by the Court of Appeals on June 1, and a ruling is expected sometime this summer.

Siegel and those opposed to eminent domain in this case are hopeful for a win.

New York State Senator Bill Perkins (D-Manhattanville) echoed the confidence of a win in a Columbia Spectator article. He said, “All the lawyers, all of us, have proven that the lack of transparency and the lack of accountability with regard to the eminent domain process is something that needs to be changed, and we have successfully challenged that.”

As more and more property owners and communities are waking up to the government’s manipulations of eminent domain, there is hope that more laws and regulations will fall into place to protect property owners.

After all, one of the greatest freedoms in America is the right to own private property.

Rebekah Rast is a contributing editor to ALG News Bureau.

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