An eminently bad idea

A lot of attention has been given to the legal concept of Eminent Domain of late. I decried its attempted use to replace a Building 19 with a Wal-Mart Super Center. Lucius over at SondraK’s site is on a tear. And it’s a recurring theme at The Volokh Conspiracy.

The common element in these cases seems to be the use of Eminent Domain to seize private property in the name of “economic development.” And that, to me, is just wrong.

Now, I’ll admit that I have a bit of a bias against eminent domain. When I was younger, the town re-did its sewer system. In the process, they decided to ED an easement through our property for a sewer line, severely injuring (probably fatally) two beautiful century-old oak trees that provided tremendous shade and would probably end up costing us a fortune to have taken down and removed. My father went ape over this, developing an almost-psychotic obsession that caused my mother and I no end of anguish. It eventually went through, but the harm done to my family never healed, right up until their deaths.

But that aside, I can understand the other side. The sewer had to be built, and the most logical place to connect the two streets was right through our property. These things happen.

But nowadays, ED is being used for “economic development.” That seems to be bureaucratese for “taking Joe’s property and giving it to Big Company X, who promises us lots of jobs.” That, to me, is just plain wrong.

I think I have a simple, elegant solution. The idea of ED is “taking private property, in the people’s name, for the common good.” I suggest a few simple restrictions, in that spirit, to guarantee that the original intent of ED is followed.

1) Property taken in the name of the people should be owned by the people. Period. It should never be sold to any private entity. But if it must, then the original owner should be given the right of first refusal, at a cost substantially less than the amount paid to them when the property was originally taken.

2) Property taken in the name of the people should be controlled by the people. It should not be leased to any private entity until it is first offered to the original owner, at a small fraction of the original price paid. For example, if City X gives Joe $200,000 for his house and tears it down for a Store X, then they can’t lease the land to Store X until after Joe has had a chance to lease it back at a discounted price — say, $5,000 a year. If Joe should then want to turn around and sublet to Company X, that’s for them to work out.

3) Private property taken in the name of the people should never be used for any for-profit purpose. If a company wants to celebrate capitalism and make lots of money off a hunk of land, let them start off in a properly capitalistic vein and pay what the owner demands for his property. Getting the local government to do their dirty work for them combines the worst of both systems — the tyrannical power over private property of socialism, and the unfettered greed and seflishness of capitalism.

And beyond that, it smacks of the worst form of bullying to me — of “might makes right.” We’re supposed to be better than that, and we need to remind ourselves of that from time to time.

J.

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