- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 30, 2005

The country last week received a group lesson on eminent domain, the practice of government taking property from private landowners for public use.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 to allow the town of New London, Conn., to condemn private homes to make way for private developers who want to demolish an older community and redevelop it into a multi-use project, to include business, shopping and upscale housing.

The ruling has implications for cities wanting to generate tax revenues through redevelopment. Yet ignorance of this law, its practice and its origin is widespread.

Reports of this ruling in the nation’s newspapers and Web sites had a darkly humorous side for those familiar with eminent domain. With joint horror, reporters told how the high court has now given localities new police power to take land.

Associated Press, for instance, reported, “Cities now have wide power to bulldoze residences for projects such as shopping malls and hotel complexes in order to generate tax revenue.”

Sorry, folks, but the U.S. Supreme Court didn’t “give” localities this right. Eminent domain is addressed in the Bill of Rights. This case made it to the Supreme Court, which, in its split decision, upheld the concept.

If you ever decide to get your real estate license, you’ll learn about this practice about halfway through your course.

“Modern Real Estate Practice,” a real estate licensing text published by Dearborn Real Estate Education, discusses eminent domain in its definition of “taking.”

“Taking comes from the takings clause of the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The clause reads, ‘nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation,’ ” the book says in Chapter 19, “Land Use Controls and Property Development.”

While we all have a constitutional right to property ownership, the government also has a constitutional right to take that property. We’ve all signed up for it, whether we knew about it or not … even in a free society, the government at times must have the ability to make decisions for the greater good. The real question comes down, then — is it really for the greater good or is it merely greed?

When I first heard of the New London case, my stomach cringed, just like it always does when I hear of the government taking land for any reason.

While it’s legal and probably, in some cerebral way, the right thing to do, it just doesn’t seem right. The ultimate land grab for “the greater good,” was demonstrated in the recent movie release “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” where a federation of planets condemns planet Earth and blows it to smithereens for the expansion of a galactic highway. The whole Earth population gets about a 30-second notice before the space bulldozers come in to clear the path to new development.

Every time you read about the taking of land, it’s not a good scenario.

The earliest one I can recall happened between 875 and 855 B.C., when King Ahab took a vineyard next to his palace, according to the Old Testament book of 1 Kings.

Ahab wanted the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite. Naboth wouldn’t sell it to the king because the land had been in the family for so long.

Ahab’s wife, Jezebel, told Ahab not to worry, she would deliver the vineyard. “And Jezebel his wife said unto him, Dost thou now govern the kingdom of Israel? arise, and eat bread, and let thine heart be merry: I will give thee the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.” (1 Kings 21:7)

She issued letters in Ahab’s name, plotting a false accusation of blasphemy against Naboth. It led to his execution by stoning.

The land was left for taking, and the transaction became one of the first recorded incidents of eminent domain.

The taking of land today doesn’t involve plotting to kill the owners, although sometimes such a case can make it to the highest court in the land. Emotions will always run high when a landowner is told to turn his property over to the government.

M. Anthony Carr is the author of “Real Estate Investing Made Simple.” Post questions or comments to his Web log at https://commonsenserealestate.blogspot.com.

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