The "Specter" of condemnation hangs over all property
By Tom DeWeese
It's unfortunate for property owners that the battle for the right to own and control their land has fallen on the shrugging shoulders of Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA). The Senator is Chairman of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, which will decide the fate of the Property Rights Protection Act, (S.1313). That's why the bill's future doesn't look promising.
The bill was introduced in the Senate by Senator John Cornyn, (R-TX) on June 27, 2005, as an immediate response to the infamous Supreme Court decision, Kelo v New London, CT. That decision said local governments could team up with private developers to bull doze homes in order to build new projects to bring in more tax dollars for the city. The ruling caused Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor to warn that "any property may now be taken for the benefit of another private party." She went on to say, "The specter of condemnation hangs over all property."
The decision caused an unprecedented firestorm of revolt across the nation. Forty-three states are now pushing legislation to protect private property from eminent domain abuse. Two commercial banks (BB&T of North Carolina and Montgomery Bank of Missouri) have announced that they will no longer finance projects where the land was taken by eminent domain. Said the Chairman of the Board of BB&T, "It's just wrong." And the U.S. House of Representatives quickly passed its own version of the Property Rights Protection Act in November, essentially cutting off federal funds to any community that uses Eminent Domain for community development.
But Senator Specter isn't falling for these arguments. He's a big government boy all the way. You know, one of those guys who just naturally has the answers for how the rest of us should live. Senator Specter never saw a big government deal he didn't like. People, in Senator Specter's way of thinking, are just sheep to be coddled at election time. In Senator Specter's world, people who speak out about losing their homes or jobs to government dictates just get in the way of serious work.
In short, it's an ideological war between Americans who believe government is to be feared and controlled verses those who believe government is the answer to every question. Senator Specter likes to make life easy. He'll choose good old government every time. Remember, it's just for the common good.
What Senator Specter is perpetrating is a well-know legislative flimflam. While the nation is inflamed over the Court's decision, he is stalling, hoping the furor will die down and go away. Then he and his big government brethren can go back to business as usual.
Of course, the Senator doesn't put it exactly in those terms. He tells us that he's just being cautious, reviewing the legislation. H e doesn't want to rush to judgment on so vital an issue, he assures us. The Hearing in September gave him good cover. He got to make headlines on the issue, which served to calm the people into believing that he was actually doing something. It will also probably help him fool some of his voters at reelection time.
And he is doing something. He's buying time for the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the National League of Cities. Now, these are folks Senator Specter can get cozy with. They think alike. They don't act through a motivation of selfishness like the bothersome property owners. Nope. They answer to a higher authority – the common good. Of course, only such big government jackals can construe the common good to be privately-owned shopping centers and luxury condos.
As the restless property owners grow confident that they are going to win a slam-dunk victory to stop eminent domain abuses, these two big government groups are wisely using the time Specter has bought them. The Mayor's Conference's and League of Cities' lobbyists are swarming over Capitol Hill, assuring Congress that state and local governments are not abusing their power to make declarations of blight or their use of eminent domain for economic development. They call the protests of property owners "emotionalistic reactions." They call for "cooler heads to prevail."
Indianapolis, Indiana, Mayor Bart Peterson calls the charges of abuse "inaccuracies and stereotypes." He says, "eminent domain is used sparingly." Interestingly, the Institute for Justice, the group that defended Suzette Kelo before the Supreme Court, reports that it has found 10,000 cases in which condemnation was used or threatened for the benefit of private developers during a five-year period. And that study probably doesn't come close to the real figure, because it was just based on those that were reported in the newspapers.
Incredibly, Mayor Peterson told one of Senator Specter's subcommittees that when government threatens to condemn people's property, "a majority of the time, most people agree to sell." It's the old "willing sellers" ruse used time and again, even written into land grab legislation, to offer some assurances that government won't just take land. It gives the impression that the property owner has some say in the matter. In reality, owners only sell after first being threatened, intimidated and harassed by government agents. Owners sell as a last resort. Then the government announces that it's got yet another "willing seller." Of course if the government was to then present their willing sellers to the public, we could all see the black eyes and broken bones they got in the deal.
Consider how the "willing sellers" were treated in New London, CT, as reported by Suzette Kelo in her testimony before the Specter committee. She had no intention of selling. She had spent a considerable amount of money and time fixing up her little pink house, a home she could afford with a beautiful view of the water. She planted flowers in the yard, braided her own rugs for the floors, filled the rooms with antiques and created the home she wanted.
It was less than a year later that the trouble started. A real estate broker suddenly showed up on her door representing an unknown client. Suzette said she wasn't interested in selling. The realtor's demeanor then changed as she warned that the property was going to be condemned by the city. Then, one year later, on the day before Thanksgiving, the sheriff taped a letter to her door, stating that her home had been condemned by the City of New London. A year after that there was a trial where the "willing sellers" attempted to save their homes. The city gave ten different reasons why it wanted to take their property. It seems the city had no specific plan for the "common good." First they said it was for "park support." Then they said "roads." Then for a "museum."
The homeowners did not surrender their property. They stood firm. Then the harassment started. Government agents knocked on doors or called on the phone at all hours, insisting that homeowners sign the contracts to sell. As soon as an owner did cave to the pressure a bulldozer was immediately brought in and the home demolished. It was then parked in front of the next home, waiting. And the process was repeated until the neighborhood looked like a war zone. Finally, roads were blocked, denying residents access to their homes. It was all for the common good, remember.
Worse, the New London actions are not just an isolated case of a government run amuck. These are the bullying tactics used in communities across the country. In the city of St. Pete Beach, Florida, the local government has filed suit against five residents who say they are opposed to a redevelopment plan officials claim will increase population and tax bases. The residents simply want to put the issue on the ballot and let the community decide. City officials sued because they say the state won't allow citizens the right to vote on a redevelopment plan like the one under consideration. Apparently letting people vote wouldn't be sound policy for the common good.
It goes on. In Norwood, Ohio, Carl and Joy Gamble stand to lose their home of 35 years so developer Jeffrey Anderson can expand his $500,000,000 empire with a new mall. More than 20 homeowners in Long Branch, NJ, many of whom have owned their oceanfront homes for generations, may be kicked off of their land for the construction of expensive condominiums. In Riviera Beach, Florida, a predominately black community (and one of the last affordable waterfront neighborhoods in Florida) is threatened by a massive redevelopment plan that may condemn up to 2,000 homes and businesses in favor of more expensive homes, upscale retail, and a yacht club, boat marina and other luxury amenities. Apparently, such luxuries are essential to the common good.
In downtown Washington, DC, homes are being torn down in order to make room for a new baseball stadium. The new location will only be a few miles from the existing RFK stadium, already owned by the city. But the venerable old facility lacks the luxury boxes and fancy amenities. So people's homes must go and business must pay taxes to pay for the new one. It's ironic, even as the homes are condemned and destroyed, the DC City council may refuse to agree to terms dictated in a contract with major league baseball and so the team may leave the city. Oh well. Perhaps the homeless can be housed in the luxury boxes. Wouldn't that be a victory for the common good?
This is how Americans are supposed to be treated, according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors? Keep these true actions in mind as you consider the words of U.S. Mayors Conference Executive Director Tom Cochran when he said, "As I have said in the past, the power of eminent domain provides elected officials at all levels of government one of the basic tools they need to ensure the growth and well-being of their communities. Local-elected leaders take the issue of eminent domain very seriously and use it judiciously, most often as a last resort, to further economic development." Americans need to start asking: growth and well being for whom? The people in the community? The rich who now have the power to take what they covet?
Such is the state of America today, in city after city. Government, armed with the power to take property at will does what government does best, it takes it. No valid reason needed. And no home or business is secure from any scheme to pad the pockets of the powerful. The policy is officially called Sustainable Development. Some call it Smart Growth, though the policy is, as the Wall Street Journal calls it, "really pretty dumb." It's the official policy of every single city, town and small burg in America. It's the official policy of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, as is prominently displayed on the group's website. Under Sustainable Development there is no room for individual whims like property rights. The common good (social equity) takes precedence over every decision. Sustainable Development means top-down control.
Meanwhile, alarmed that legislation may actually acknowledge that people have rights to the property they've bought and paid for, the U.S. Conference of Mayors has issued an emergency resolution at its 74th Winter Meeting that "underscores the use of eminent domain as integral to the economic development of local communities." "Without the use of eminent domain," the Resolution goes on, "it will be very difficult and/or expensive for many cities to carryout public/private economic development." (public/private – that's Sustainable Development policy which they can't carry out with out a powerful sledgehammer over property owners.)
The Mayors and the League of Cities are terrified that their days of abusing property rights are coming to and end. In the heat of the fight they have turned to the age-old tactic that has always worked in this day of sound-bite politics and emotion-driven policy. Delay. Let it all calm down. Sneak it passed the unsuspecting public. The Mayor's Resolution calls on the federal government to take no further action to "alter the rules governing eminent domain until it has 1) received the report on the results of a study currently being conducted by the Government Accountability Office on how state and local governments are using eminent domain across the nation; 2) and held comprehensive hearings." Delay.
Not mentioned in the Resolution, but understood by all involved, is that if the delay can last until the end of this congressional legislative session, the Property Rights Protection Act passed in the House and pending in the Senate will die. Property rights advocates will have to start over again in the next congress. All know there is little hope of that happening. The battle is now or never.
And so, as Senator Specter steps into the breach and gives the local governments the delay they desperately want, the land grabs go on, accelerated by Supreme Court vindication. The people will forget. The fight will subside. The condemned homeowners tossed aside. The common good proudly served as the proper pockets are lined with gold. By reelection time, will anyone remember that it was Arlen Specter who drowned the fire of the property rights revolt?
Tom DeWeese is President of the American Policy Center and Editor of the DeWeese Report.
Get weekly updates about new issues of ESR!