Property Rights and Wrongs

If you own a residence on land that could be generating more property-tax revenue for your local government, watch out. The Supreme Court will decide this term whether government can take anyone's private property and give it to a private developer who promises to generate more money from the land.

Such forced removal of private homes for the sake of commercial development has become more common as states, cities, and towns struggle to find more funds. The practice is supposedly justified by the Constitution's Fifth Amendment, which grants the power of eminent domain, or the "taking" of private poverty if owners are justly compensated and the purpose is "public use."

Ah, but the current legal rub lies in defining "public" and "use."

The common-sense definition of public use is things like highways, public schools, and government buildings. That began to change in 1954 when the Supreme Court ruled that a neighborhood deemed "blighted" could be torn down if a local government has a better use for it. In recent years, many local officials have decided that even an unblighted neighborhood could go if they simply demonstrated a "public benefit," rather than mere public use.

Between 1998 and 2002, governments have threatened or filed to take over 10,282 private properties and give them to private developers, according to the Institute for Justice, a conservative nonprofit law firm.

The case soon to be argued before the Supreme Court involves a neighborhood in New London, Conn. The city endorsed a plan by developers to tear down the neighborhood to build a condominium complex and office park, even though no claim of blight was involved. The city's attorneys say the plan is justified solely because it will reap more tax revenue.

In deciding this case, the high court might well consider a ruling by Michigan's Supreme Court last July. It decided that some of the state's residents should be able to keep their land - in spite of a planned office park. The court noted that "if one's ownership of private property is forever subject to the government's determination that another private party would put one's land to better use, then the ownership of real property is perpetually threatened by the expansion plans of any large discount retailer, 'megastore', or the like."

Property rights are a bedrock of democracy and should not be curtailed simply because a community decides it won't raise its taxes or trim spending. Rights once taken are not easily returned, while sources of revenue are more fluid and temporary.

A person's castle should be a bastion of individual rights, not a revenue center.

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