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Eminent domain surges after ruling

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The Supreme Court's decision last year to allow cities and states to seize property for private development "opened the floodgates" to eminent domain actions nationwide, a report says.

In the year since the Kelo decision, nearly 6,000 properties nationwide have been threatened or taken under that precedent, more than half the number that had been seized over a previous five-year period, said a report released yesterday by the Institute for Justice.

"There has been a huge rise in the number of threats to use eminent domain since Kelo. Cities are wielding eminent domain as a club," said Dana Berliner, a senior counsel with the Institute for Justice and the author of the 100-page report.

People threatened with eminent domain are vulnerable, she said, because they feel compelled to sell or have their home or business seized for a fire-sale price. At the same time, Ms. Berliner said, residents have become more active in trying to thwart land grabs and promoting changes to state law to bar the use of eminent domain.

Since the high court's 5-4 decision in Kelo v. City of New London, Conn., a year ago Friday, 5,783 properties nationwide have been either seized or threatened with seizure under eminent domain.

That number compares with 10,281 examples over the five-year period from 1998 to 2002, said the institute, a public-interest law firm that argued the Kelo case before the Supreme Court. During that period, threats were made to seize 6,560 properties, and 3,721 condemnation filings or authorizations were recorded.

In the past year, 5,429 property seizures have been threatened for economic redevelopment projects, plus 354 condemnation filings or authorizations, the institute said.

In the Kelo case, the institute represented nine Connecticut homeowners who tried unsuccessfully to halt New London's takeover of their properties for economic redevelopment. The court held that private development has a public purpose if it will increase jobs and tax receipts.

Ms. Berliner's report, "Opening the Floodgates: Eminent Domain Abuse in the Post-Kelo World," was one of five released yesterday by the Institute for Justice and its grass-roots activism project, the Castle Coalition.

"The court ruled that the U.S. Constitution allows government to use eminent domain to take and bulldoze existing homes and businesses for new private commercial development, holding that the mere possibility that a different private use could produce more taxes or jobs is enough reason for condemnation," the report said.

"Opening the Floodgates" documents 117 projects in the District and 27 states, including Maryland, that have involved the use or threatened use of eminent domain for private development in the past year.

"The vast majority ... involved the removal of lower-income residents and smaller businesses to attract wealthier people or more prominent businesses," Ms. Berliner wrote.

"Of the 117 projects, nearly half involved taking low-income houses, apartments and mobile home parks to construct upscale condominiums or other upscale residences and new retail development. Cities across America are working hard to drive out the working poor," she said.

She said the city of Baltimore is "on an eminent domain spree" because it intends to seize 75 properties for private development in this year alone.