By Jon Coupal
In some countries the use of eminent domain can be a life or death issue.
Last June, in the small village of Shengyou, China, six people were killed and 50 injured in a bloody clash between farmers and hundreds of armed thugs sent by government operatives to seize their land. This was just one of thousands of disputes over land appropriation that take place each year in China.
Fueling these conflicts is the ambiguous nature of property ownership in China. The rights of farmers who hold land collectively are not made clear under Chinese law. Although farmers can acquire property through long term leases, government can destroy even these limited property rights at will.
For most Americans, until recently, this would have been considered a problem unique to those living half-way across the world. Certainly in our country, a strong legal system and precedents dating from our nation’s founding protect against the arbitrary seizure of property.
However, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Kelo v. City of New London a decision coincidently handed down the same month as the melee in Shengyou has American property owners asking themselves just what are their rights, and if their property is really their own.
The court battle began when several New London, Conn., homeowners objected to the city’s use of eminent domain to seize their property so that it could be turned over to a developer who would return more tax revenue.
At issue was the U.S. Constitution’s Fifth Amendment, which states “nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation.” Specifically, what do the words “public use” mean?
The Fifth Amendment, it has been traditionally argued, allows for the taking of private property for such public benefits as roads or school construction. This makes sense because, especially with roads, one holdout property owner can frustrate the purposes of an entire community.
However, the Supreme Court in a 5 to 4 decision expanded the definition of public use so that New London officials, and redevelopment agencies across the nation, can seize private property and turn it over to another private interest simply for the purpose of putting more money into local government coffers.
Even without the benefit of the Kelo decision, for years California redevelopment agencies have been abusing their powers of eminent domain. Unspoiled homes and other property are declared “blighted” the definition of which is nearly as vague as Chinese property rights so they can be condemned and turned into car dealerships or supermarkets that will produce more tax revenue. The actual condition of the property that is condemned seems to have little relevance; in at least one instance a golf course was declared blighted.
Often the actual victims of redevelopment abuse are minority owners of homes and businesses, whose perceived lack of political clout makes them more vulnerable. The High Court’s ruling makes a bad situation worse by increasing the options officials have to use eminent domain.
Bad behavior by redevelopment agencies is not all that surprising when one realizes that in many communities the redevelopment commissioners are city council members wearing a different hat. What better way to repay a developer’s campaign contribution than with the reward of a piece of prime property for a new shopping mall?
Even in Los Angeles, where, the public is led to believe, a separate redevelopment agency has some autonomy, the use of eminent domain is rife with abuse.
A year after the city seized three acres from a private company, ostensibly to be used for an animal shelter, at least one City Council member is crusading to sell the property to another private company whose owner has lavished substantial campaign cash on local office holders.
The Kelo decision, along with years of redevelopment and eminent domain abuse across the state, has made property owners angry. Surveys show that nearly 90% of Californians consider this a major problem.
No one is suggesting that government agencies be barred from taking property for legitimate public use, but taking property from one private citizen to give to another must cease. To this end, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association has been working with State Sen. Tom McClintock and Orange County Supervisor Chris Norby in support of legislation to make basic protection from arbitrary seizure of property a part of the state constitution.
Additionally, there are several initiative measures filed to address what is now known as “Kelo” reform. Unlike most initiative measures, support for the protection of one’s property cuts across all political and socio-economic classifications.
Whether property rights advocates are forced to pursue the initiative route is dependent on the willingness of the California Legislature and municipal interests to accept meaningful reform.
Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association California’s largest taxpayer organization which is dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and promoting taxpayers’ rights.