Another chapter from my book, 50 Things You’re Not Supposed to Know, published in 2003, by Disinfo.
For more on me, please check out The Memory Hole.
It’s not an issue that gets much attention, but the government has the right to seize your house, business, and/or land, forcing you into the street. This mighty power, called “eminent domain,” is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution’s Fifth Amendment: “… nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation.” Every single state constitution also stipulates that a person whose property is taken must be justly compensated and that the property must be put to public use. This should mean that if your house is smack-dab in the middle of a proposed highway, the government can take it, pay you market value, and build the highway.
Whether or not this is a power the government should have is very much open to question, but what makes it worse is the abuse of this supposedly limited power. Across the country, local governments are stealing their citizens’ property, then turning around and selling it to corporations for the construction of malls, condominiums, parking lots, racetracks, office complexes, factories, etc.
The Institute for Justice — the country’s only nonprofit, public-interest law firm with a libertarian philosophy — spends a good deal of time protecting individuals and small businesses from greedy corporations and their partners in crime: bureaucrats armed with eminent domain. In 2003, it released a report on the use of “governmental condemnation” (another name for eminent domain) for private gain. No central data collection for this trend exists, and only one state (Connecticut) keeps statistics on it. Using court records, media accounts, and information from involved parties, the Institute found over 10,000 such abuses in 41 states from 1998 through 2002. Of these, the legal process had been initiated against 3,722 properties, and condemnation had been threatened against 6,560 properties. (Remember, this is condemnation solely for the benefit of private parties, not for so-called legitimate reasons of “public use.”)
In one instance, the city of Hurst, Texas, condemned 127 homes so that a mall could expand. Most of the families moved under the pressure, but ten chose to stay and fight. The Institute writes:
A Texas trial judge refused to stay the condemnations while the suit was ongoing, so the residents lost their homes. Leonard Prohs had to move while his wife was in the hospital with brain cancer. She died only five days after their house was demolished. Phyllis Duval’s husband also was in the hospital with cancer at the time they were required to move. He died one month after the demolition. Of the ten couples, three spouses died and four others suffered heart attacks during the dispute and litigation. In court, the owners presented evidence that the land surveyor who designed the roads for the mall had been told to change the path of one road to run through eight of the houses of the owners challenging the condemnations.
In another case, wanting to “redevelop” Main Street, the city of East Hartford, Connecticut, used eminent domain to threaten a bakery/deli that had been in that spot for 93 years, owned and operated by the same family during that whole time. Thus coerced, the family sold the business for $1.75 million, and the local landmark was destroyed. But the redevelopment fell through, so the lot now stands empty and the city is in debt.
The city of Cypress, California, wanted Costco to build a retail store on an 18-acre plot of land. Trouble was, the Cottonwood Christian Center already owned the land fair and square, and was planning to build a church on it. The city council used eminent domain to seize the land, saying that the new church would be a “public nuisance” and would “blight” the area (which is right beside a horse-racing track). The Christian Center got a federal injunction to stop the condemnation, and the city appealed this decision. To avoid further protracted legal nightmares, the church group consented to trade its land for another tract in the vicinity.
But all of this is small potatoes compared to what’s going on in Riviera Beach, Florida:
City Council members voted unanimously to approve a $1.25 billion redevelopment plan with the authority to use eminent domain to condemn at least 1,700 houses and apartments and dislocate 5,100 people. The city will then take the property and sell the land to commercial yachting, shipping, and tourism companies.
If approved by the state, it will be one of the biggest eminent domain seizures in U.S. history.
In 1795, the Supreme Court referred to eminent domain as “the despotic power.” Over two centuries later, they continue to be proven right.
References: Berliner, Dana. Government Theft: Top 10 Abuses of Eminent Domain, 1998-2002. Castle
Coalition (Institute for Justice), 2003. • Berliner, Dana. Public Power, Private Gain: A Five-Year, State-by-State Report Examining the Abuse of Eminent Domain. Castle Coalition (Institute for Justice), April 2003.