The Blight of Eminent Domain

This morning, millions of Americans woke up inside their homes, built on their properties, this right -the right to own land- is guaranteed to them by the United States Constitution. However, somewhat paradoxically, the United States Constitution also grants the government the right to seize a citizen’s private property through a process known as eminent domain. This was created so that the government could, if absolutely necessary, seize the property of one person to improve the lives of many. Recently, governments have been using this procedure much more frequently than needed. Seizure of private property by the government is a right that should be exercised as little as possible because property is often wrongfully taken from its owners for the government under the guise of public improvement, not to mention the fact that compensation for seized property is often severely lacking.Property is often seized by the government when it need not and should not be seized at all. The concept of eminent domain began with the noble cause of helping people by building new infrastructure that could make life easier for many, while slightly inconveniencing few. Paul Gottfried states, “Neither Locke, nor Blackstone, nor Epstein suggests that states– or civil society–can operate without forced exchanges. But their assumption, and the Founding Fathers’, is that government exists to protect, rather than transfer or redistribute property” (Gottfried 1). Sadly, apparently not all United States (U.S.) officials are aware of these noble intentions, because in 1984, the Supreme Court of the U.S. voted to allow the state of Hawaii to take land from a wealthy group of private citizens and distribute it to a less wealthy group of private citizens in the Hawaii Housing Authority v. Midkiff case. (“Eminent” 4) One defense used by a governing body for taking a person’s land, is that the property is “blighted.” Webster’s defines “blighted” as “in a badly damaged or deteriorated condition” (“Blighted” 1). In many cases, however, property is not damaged or deteriorated. Apparently, the definitions used by the government for blighted are “notoriously loose” (Main 2). They include land that is “underutilized,” which, according to an article from the Philadelphia Inquirer “…could apply to almost any property, even Drumthwacket, the [New Jersey] governor’s mansion in Princeton” (“State’s” 1). Meaning that it is possible for a government to claim practically any property and be able to successfully back it up in a court of law by stating that the property was “blighted.” One may think that it is unlikely that a situation such as this would end up in court considering the government typically has the final say in matters. However in this one, they do not. A citizen may attempt to battle the government in a court to try to reclaim their right to their land, but of course, as with everything, there must be a catch. In this situation, the catch is that “…the challenge may be accepted if the government body did fail to follow the required procedures for exercising this power” (Dwyer 1). Even then, “…property owners must file preliminary objections within thirty days of receiving the letter — the notice of condemnation” (Dwyer 1). When one factors this in, along with all of the time and money that would be needed to fight this battle, one could end up exhausting all of their resources and still end up being ousted from their home or having their businesses closed down just so the government could waste even more of its money building unnecessary infrastructure on a plot of land that used to be somebody’s home or place of work. The U.S. Constitution states in a part of the Fifth Amendment (known as the “Takings Clause”), that property taken by a government must be used for the public’s benefit, not for the government’s benefit, not for the federal/state/city official’s pals, but for the people. “No person shall… be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation” (US Const. Amend. V). However, despite this, governments still find ways to violate this clause. For instance, in a small New Jersey town called Edgewater, developers bought an empty plot of land from the Hess Corporation for twenty-five million dollars and intended to build two public parks, a waterfront esplanade, retail space, a ferry terminal, an elementary school, and 1,863 apartments in two high-rise buildings, including 375 low to moderate income apartments (Bagli 1). Affordable housing for the poor, retail space to bring the city more tax revenue, and two public parks so that citizens could get exercise and have a place to hang out. Instead, the Edgewater town council voted to seize the property through eminent domain and build a brand new Department of Public Works (D.P.W.) building and a public park (Bagli 1). Of course, one must congratulate the Edgewater government for at least offering to pay the developers twenty-five million dollars for this pointless seizure of property. On the other hand, one must question why they would be willing to spend that much money on a plot of land, just to spend more money to build a new D.P.W. building and a public park. It would be a foolish plan when there is no extra revenue to be gained through this endeavor. On the other hand, developers would have private companies foot the bill, and provide an estimated twelve million dollars per year in taxes. (Bagli 1) As Edward Elanjian, one of the developers, stated, “I am perplexed as to why the mayor would rather engage in costly litigation on condemnation of private property to forcibly convert the borough’s largest source of new tax revenues into an oversized D.P.W. storage facility rather than work constructively for the benefit of the community” (Bagli 2).One particular case that made the issue of eminent domain a household topic is the case of Kelo v. New London, in which the city of New London, Connecticut made an elaborate development plan to kickstart the city’s economy. Of course, this plan would require importing businesses, which would require new buildings, and would also, of course, require land. At first, the city bought land from willing sellers, but then moved on to using eminent domain to claim the rest of the land they would need (“Eminent” 4). The development plan was to include “…a business district that would house a waterfront conference hotel, research and development offices, a U.S. Coast Guard Museum, and a host of water-dependent commercial businesses” (“Eminent” 4). In this case, families displaced by the plan battled this case all the way to the Supreme Court, and in a five-four split decision, the Court voted on the side of New London. The court said that, “The public-use requirement is also satisfied when the condemned property is used for a public purpose” (“Eminent” 4). Time went by, the families presumably relocated, and the space set aside for the research and development facilities remained empty. As Damon Root states in his article “ Eminent Domain Goes Bust”,The project that was supposed to entice Pfizer and provide ‘appreciable benefits to the community’ was never built, and in November 2009 the company announced that it was closing down its facility and pulling out of New London entirely. As for the properties that were seized and then bulldozed after the Supreme Court gave its stamp of approval, they were never redeveloped and continue to stand empty (1).If one omits the Supreme Court’s flawed interpretation of the takings clause, the only way that land can be legally parcelled out to developers is if the land is “blighted.” This action seems unconstitutional, and in reality, is, especially if one takes into account how loose the government’s definition of “blighted” is. An individual could possibly just come home one day and find a note on their door telling them to get out because their land now belongs to a developer who may or may not actually build what they claim they are going to build. As one New Jersey lawmaker said, “…[the government] must focus only on the current state of the land and what it is, not what it could be” (“State’s” 1).The third part of the Takings Clause demands that the government provide “just compensation” for taken property (US Const. Amend. V), but the Constitution doesn’t outline what “just” is leaving it open to interpretation. The first piece of evidence for how loose the government’s definition of “just compensation” does not come from an eminent domain case at all. Instead, it comes from a case in which a man named Leo Lech came home to find his newly built suburban home completely unlivable. This had all happened because the police were chasing a suspected shoplifter who took refuge in Mr. Lech’s home. They called in a special weapons and tactics (S.W.A.T.) team to attempt to get the man out of Lech’s house. The factor that made the house unlivable was the fact that the SWAT team used “…a display of force commonly reserved for the battlefield, the tactical team bombarded the building with high-caliber rifles, chemical agents, flash-bang grenades, remote control robots, armored vehicles, and breaching rams” (Stooksberry 1). However, no matter how horrific the gross use of unnecessary force was, the true crime is that the government had the gull to offer Lech “…a measly $5,000 in compensation for his out-of-pocket insurance deductible and temporary living assistance for his displaced family. Of course, this didn’t come close to covering his expenses; Lech took out a $390,000 loan to cover the costs for rebuilding alone” (Stooksbury 4). The government offered a man 5,000 dollars for a project that would cost seventy-eight times that. Naturally, he sued, and the city chose to spend money disputing it in court, when it would have been cheaper to just pay the man. An additional problem for homeowners is that the looming threat of the taking could potentially lower the home’s value, as Carla Main states, “If you are a homeowner, you will get the value of your home at the time the condemnation made it virtually impossible to sell” (2).The seizure of a business has a large potential for lost income as well. “When your business is taken, you will be compensated primarily for the value of the real estate on which it sits and the ‘fixtures’ inside; you may kiss goodbye the value of assets such as licenses, goodwill, location, customers and most other intangibles” (Main 2). Meaning that a small local business could be shut down to make it possible to build another lane to get off the interstate, causing it to lose out on local customers as well as its advantageous position directly near a busy street.Of course, “just compensation” is not merely arbitrary either. A government must hire an appraiser to determine how much should be offered, and then they must make the offer, but the government, however, has no obligation to provide the land owner with a copy of the report (Dwyer 2). This creates the potential for hornswoggling at two points. Firstly, the government could pay an appraiser a little bit extra so that the government gets their version of a “just compensation.” The second area that could cause conflict would happen after the government receives the appraisal report. Since they have no obligation to show the property owner the report, they can give them whatever amount they want. As long as the appraiser stays silent, and as long as the property owner accepts the proposed amount, they can get off with a cheap victory. A government’s first duty should always be to protect its citizens’ rights. In order to effectively do so, eminent domain should be restricted. However, the United States Constitution is, under no circumstances to be disregarded. Therefore, in order to pay the Constitution the respect it is due, while still protecting the rights of American citizens, the Takings Clause ought to be followed to the letter. In other words, it is imperative that property be taken only for the public benefit, and only if fair compensation is offered to those who are negatively impacted by eminent domain. If people stand up to corrupt politicians, then “We the people” can purge the blight of eminent domain.