- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 28, 2004

ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to decide when governments can seize homes and businesses for economic development projects, a key question as cash-strapped cities seek ways to generate tax revenue.

At issue is the scope of the Fifth Amendment, which allows governments to take private property through eminent domain provided the owner is given “just compensation” and the land is taken for “public use.”

Susette Kelo and several other homeowners in a working-class neighborhood in New London, Conn., filed a lawsuit after city officials announced plans to raze their homes to clear the way for a riverfront hotel, health club and offices. The residents refused to budge, arguing that it was an unjustified takeover of their property.

They argued the seizure would be proper only if it served to revitalize slums or blighted areas dangerous to the public.

New London contends that the condemnations are proper because the development plans serving a “public purpose” — such as boosting economic growth — are valid “public-use” projects that outweigh the property rights of the homeowners.

The Connecticut Supreme Court agreed with New London, ruling 4-3 in March that the mere promise of additional tax revenue justified the condemnation.

More than 1,000 properties nationwide were threatened or condemned from 1998 to 2002, according to the Institute for Justice, a Washington public-interest law firm representing the New London homeowners.

In many cases, the group says, cities are pushing the limits of their power to accommodate wealthy developers. Courts, meanwhile, are divided over the extent of city power, with seven states saying economic development can justify seizure and eight states allowing a takeover only if it eliminates blight.

In New London, city officials envision replacing a stagnant enclave with commercial development that would attract tourists to the Thames riverfront, complementing an adjoining Pfizer Corp. research center and a proposed Coast Guard museum.

“The record is clear that New London was a city desperate for economic rejuvenation,” the city’s legal filing states, in asking the high court to defer to local governments in deciding what constitutes “public use.”

In other action yesterday, the high court agreed to hear an appeal involving an amateur radio operator who says the city of Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., unjustly denied him a permit to use a radio antenna for commercial purposes.

At issue is whether the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 provides for monetary damages from city officials in cases of violations or simply for a court order requiring the city’s compliance. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the radio operator was entitled to compensation.

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