Property seizure backlash

State and federal lawmakers consider new limits on takings in the wake of court decision.

In Lodi, N.J., hundreds of trailer park residents may soon be squatters if the city decides their homes are hurting land values.

In East Baltimore, the Baltimore Development Corp. wants to turn 2,000 largely vacant properties into a biotech park.

In New London, Conn., a cluster of homes will be bulldozed to make way for hotels and health clubs.

Such seizures of private property, while not new, are drawing new controversy.

The June 23 Supreme Court ruling in the case of Kelo v. City of New London has emboldened those who support the taking of private land for public use - even when local governments are doing so to foster private development. But the same decision is fueling a nationwide backlash - rippling into homeowner outrage and legislative action.

The ruling resonates for millions of Americans because the issue hits - literally - close to their homes. During the Fourth of July weekend, anti-Kelo activists accused the courts of betraying one of the founding principles of the republic, citizens' right to their property. A Houston Chronicle editorial went so far as to compare the decision to communist Chinese land-use policy.

Now state lawmakers from New York to Alaska are urging limits on when a "public use" justifies the seizure of land. Congress is also moving on the issue - starting with a House vote last week to bar federal transportation funds from being used to make improvements on lands seized for private development.

"We will see states digest the Kelo decision and then determine what they will do with it," said Larry Morandi, with the National Conference of State Legislatures.

How far the backlash will go may not become clear until next year. But the battle promises to clarify government's use of eminent domain for economic development.

At least eight states - Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Maine, Montana, South Carolina and Washington - already forbid the use of eminent domain for economic development unless it is to eliminate blight. Other states either expressly allow private property to be taken for private economic purposes or have not spoken clearly to the question.

In the wake of the Kelo ruling, property-rights crusaders have responded through grass-roots activism and elected officials. Bills and amendments that would limit use of eminent domain were generated in state legislatures and Congress within days of the Supreme Court decision.

The House speaker in Florida and Gov. Sonny Perdue in Georgia are among those backing a review of eminent domain in light of the Kelo ruling. In Texas, a constitutional amendment in the House and Senate would ban the use of eminent domain solely for economic purposes.

In Congress, Sen. John Cornyn (R) of Texas has introduced the protection of homes, small businesses, and private property act. A similar, bipartisan bill has been introduced in the House.

"The power of eminent domain should not be used simply to further private economic development," said Mr. Cornyn in a statement. The bill would bar federal funds for state and local governments that seize land for private development.

Eminent domain has united some of Washington's least likely allies. Many Democrats who decried Republican claims of judicial activism a few months ago are, on this issue, teaming up with House Republican leader Tom DeLay. In one poll, albeit not taken scientifically, 120,000 people answered a question on the MSNBC website: 98 percent disapproved of the Kelo decision. But the ruling also has strong supporters, who say the decision is a gasp of air for thousands of depressed areas that have languished, undeveloped, for years.

Washington, D.C., Mayor Anthony Williams, now president of the National League of Cities, said recently that the use of eminent domain has been "indispensable for revitalizing local economies, creating much-needed jobs, and generating revenue that enables cities to provide essential services." The court, he said, merely "reaffirmed its current use."

In Boston, the harbor front of Fan Pier has been owned by the multi-billionaire Pritzker family, inheritors of the Hyatt hotel empire, for four years. No development has proceeded since the Pritzkers received their permits for the pier. Thanks to the Kelo ruling, the Boston Redevelopment Authority may now have a big enough stick to spur a glitzy waterfront renovation, with or without Pritzker consent.

"We share the mayor's frustration that the Fan Pier [redevelopment] project remains unrealized," said Meredith Baumann, a spokeswoman for the BRA.

Some experts argue that suitable protection still exists for landowners, since they can hold elected officials accountable for seizures through their vote.

John Kramer, with the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public-interest law firm, disagrees. "This is one of the most severe things a government can do to an individual next to taking their life. For the courts to ... say the voters can handle this after the fact is an empty promise," he asserts.

Mr. Kramer's institute has spawned the Castle Coalition, a network of anti-Kelo activists spread across the country. The coalition's website features an "eminent domain abuse survival guide," which is helping campaigners draw the battle lines.

One of them is Pat Seidman of the South Jersey (N.J.) Coalition of Our Homes. "I'm not going around waving a flag or anything, but property seizure is just un-American," she says. She sees both sides of the debate. But even the most seemingly depressed area, she says, is someone's home - a home most people would rather fix than pave over.

"Nobody wants to live in squalor. No one," she says. What the users of eminent domain "have forgotten is the middle - you have redevelopment, and development, but they're missing rehabilitation."

Wire material was used in this report.

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