Thursday, June 30, 2005

More (and More...and More) on Eminent Domain

I am always amazed and somewhat chagrined when a media frenzy takes hold on a particular issue. But in the case of the Supreme Court's ruling on eminent domain, it isn't just the media that's gone into a frenzy, but all the political pundits out there as well. Reasoned discussion, logic, and facts often go right out the window during such frenzies, as people whip themselves into a lather trying to get one up on the last guy who commented.

It takes some careful looking around to get a more balanced view of things, and that's what is needed on this topic.

One that I've found was with Margaret Warner of PBS's NewsHour on June 24. Her guests were Bart Peterson, mayor of Indianapolis and vice-president of the National League of Cities; and John Norquist, former mayor of Milwaukee and president of the Congress for New Urbanism.

As I've read and listen to commentators recently, you can get the distinct impression that the Court created a new right of eminent domain for economic development purposes with this ruling that did not exist before, and that all homeowners now need to fear the indiscriminate taking of their homes for a shopping mall or Wal-Mart. But the court primarily left standing a power long exercised by local government.

As Bart Peterson put it on NewsHour, "...the Supreme Court didn't produce any new rights or didn't order any new rights, didn't expand any new rights for cities. All it really did was affirm the status quo. These are powers that cities all across America have had already and the Supreme Court simply said that they were not going to restrict those powers."

So if this power has long existed, why now, just because the High Court affirmed this power, will we see a sudden rush to egregious takings of homes and property to hand over to rich developers? Wouldn't past history argue that by and large, states and locals have been exercising this power with appropriate restraint and caution?

Peterson continues, "...I don't think we have to fear that cities are suddenly going to rush out and try to condemn anything. It's used sparingly and it's used sparingly because it's unpopular. Nobody really wants to use the power of eminent domain but it's essential as a tool to be able to revitalize depressed communities all across America."

And the court made it clear that states have the power to define and restrict this power as they deem it appropriate. Again, from Peterson, "...we'll see some states review their laws and see whether they think they're restrictive enough or whether they want to add anything... . But I really think that state and local government officials are...smarter than John gives us credit for."
The entire transcript is worth the read. You'll also see John Norquist's arguments against the ruling and why he thinks its bad. By the way, I caught a bit of Radio West today on KUER, where they had Andres Duany on, who is the "godfather" of New Urbanism. He supported the ruling, saying that in the redevelopment of our aging and deteriorating communities, sometimes the use of this power is necessary. Anyway, read the Margaret Warner interview here.

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