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June 29, 2005

Just how safe is your property?

Logan Darrow Clements has been described in the media as a gadfly. "Pain in the arse" is probably closer to the description Supreme Court Justice David Souter would use right now.

Mr. Clements, you see, wants to build a hotel on a site that includes the justice's home in Weare, N. H., and he anticipates the Towne of Weare will condemn the property for him, using eminent domain powers expanded last week by a
Supreme Court ruling
supported by Justice Souter.

However much fun Mr. Clements' stunt turns out to be (the name of the proposed hotel is the "Lost Liberty"), I'm more concerned for the many ordinary folks whose property will be endangered as developers and their often too-willing partners in local goverment test the limits of the new power to take private property in the name of economic development.

Though the court majority (the decision was 5-4) said Connecticut law and precedent permitted New London to condemn unblighted homes to make way for a project proposed by a private, not-for-profit group associated with the city, it is the minority's reasoning that has resonated with an apparently vast majority of every-day people.

Justice Clarence Thomas, with whom I find myself agreeing more often than I would ever have thought possible, said the decision "replaces the Public Use Clause with the Public Purpose clause," a distinction Justice Sandra O"Connor said broadens the public use clause to such a degree as to render is worthless as a check on government land grabs.

The main remaining check we have is local officials, which is kind of scary since -- speaking on a national scale -- so many of them tend to see any "economic development" project as something to be slavishly supported.

A lot of state officials, including Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, are calling for a re-examination of state laws regarding eminent domain to make sure they do not contain the expansive powers permitted in Connecticut. We should pay attention, to make sure the follow-through gets done when the issue slips from the spotlight.

In the Quad-Cities, Davenport property owners should be able to relax somewhat, given the strong position taken by Mayor Charlie Brooke just a couple of weeks ago. The city council OK'd use of eminent domain powers to condemn land for a sewer easement to benefit a private housing development proposed for an adjoining property. Mayor Brooke vetoed the move, saying that "The exercise of the kingly power of eminent domain or condemnation was one of the ultimate interferences and intrusions of the government into the private lives of its citizens that the founders of our country tried to limit severely."

City attorneys in Moline and Rock Island were quick to say eminent domain is a little used power of last resort.

All that's fine, but the problem is that local officials comprise an ever-changing cast and who knows when and where a property grab will occur.

And they will occur, thanks to the ruling from a Supreme Court that's consistent only in expanding government powers in virtually every realm.

Posted by jcb at June 29, 2005 03:25 PM


Our local development people have always shown themselves to be prepared to run over anyone's grandma for the promise of a few minimum-wage jobs. Or fill in a wetland, give away public lands, you name it. So this ruling should give us all pause.

Posted by: Anonymous at July 5, 2005 01:55 PM

Jeff Ignatius does a nice overview of the eminent domain issues in the current River Cities Reader.

Posted by: jcb at July 6, 2005 08:56 PM