Eminent Domain: Abuse of Government Power?

By Timothy Sandefur, Steven Greenhut


Americans, I think almost universally, consider their home to be their castles, but last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Kelo vs. New London that anyone’s property is simply on loan from government officials, who can seize it for private economic development in what might properly be considered a system of neo-feudalism. But the use of eminent domain actually has quite a long history in the United States and before.

In the United States in 1795, for example, the U.S. Supreme Court itself described the power of eminent domain as the “despotic power,” in which essentially covetedness and theft could be legalized but constrained by the Fifth Amendment through “just compensation.” The Kelo decision, however, takes eminent domain to what I would consider new lows, and I think we’ll get an idea of that tonight.

Eminent domain has the potential to, quite frankly, destroy lives, destroy livelihoods, by uprooting people from their homes and businesspeople from their shops. Today’s small businesses and homeowners in particular, quite frankly, better beware, because if politically connected interest groups want what is yours, government officials can send in the police to confiscate your property, going through the proper procedures, that is, and your property could be your home, your business, your church, your neighborhood and other things, and then convert the area into shopping centers, condominium complexes, parking garages, highway overpasses, you name it.

And the funding for these projects is not completely, but is significantly being provided by state and federal government agencies. In June 2004, Steven Greenhut documented and warned us about this growing misuse of government power before the Kelo decision in the book Abuse of Power that I mentioned.

The practice itself of eminent domain has been around for quite a while in US history, as I mentioned. For example, most of the railroads and the nation’s highways were built by landowners having their properties condemned, given a dollar, in many cases, and told that if they didn’t like it, they could go to court.

But the Kelo decision now fully institutionalizes what the 1795 court called the despotic power, to confiscate property almost everywhere, and conceivably, from almost anyone who’s not politically connected. For example, to John Revelli, who is here tonight, I should mention, whose family has operated a tire shop near downtown Oakland for decades, the implication of this has hit home.

This past year, a group of private contractors hired by the city of Oakland, packed the contents of his small auto shop into a moving van and evicted Revelli from the property his family has legally owned since 1949. The city government, using eminent domain, seized Revelli Tire and the adjacent property, Auto House, an owner-operated small business, and evicted the longtime property owners to clear the way for a housing development under contract to private developers who would produce 1,200 apartments and condominiums and receive government subsidies of $61 million.

“John works alone. I have one technician working for me. That’s it,” said Tony Fung, who bought his 25-square-foot auto shop operation in 1993. “The cost of buying or leasing a new site is prohibitive. The money the city offered me does not cover it. I’m an immigrant from China. This has been the fulfillment of my American dream.” Fung went on to say, “I worked hard. I played by the rules, but now it’s all gone. I’ve got to start over.”

Currently in Yolo County, near Sacramento, government officials are determined to seize the property of Conaway Ranch, but according to reports in the Sacramento Bee, county officials don’t have the money to buy the land, even at the depressed prices you find in a forced sale. As a result, they’re counting on a loan of as much as $50 million from the Rumsey Band of Winton Indians, who just happen to operate a gambling casino just up the road. Meanwhile, according to a survey reported in the Davis Enterprise newspaper, 73 percent of Yolo County voters opposed the county’s use of eminent domain to seize Conaway Ranch. Yet, County Supervisor Mike McGowen told the Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters that, “it’s our land.” Again, the despotic power.

Full story at http://www.independent.org/events/transcript.asp?id=114


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