The Journal Editorial Report | November 18, 2005 | PBS
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briefing and opinion
November 18, 2005

Blight in the Eye of the Beholder
Susette Kelo
Homeowner Susette Kelo of New London, Connecticut, after completing her testimony to a combined meeting of the Judiciary and the Planning and Development Committees at the Legislative Office Building July 28, 2005, in Hartford. (AP/Steven Lee Miller)

Few Supreme Court decisions have so unified critics on all sides as the decision last June that local governments have more or less unlimited authority to take private property. The backlash is enormous. Correspondent Celeste Ford reports from New Jersey.

On the New Jersey shore, residents of a beachfront neighborhood are fighting to keep their homes. The city of Long Branch is working with a private developer to build luxury condominiums, retail space and a park. The next phase of the plan hinges on buying and tearing down at least 30 houses. But residents say they won't sell their homes so that other homeowners can enjoy their spot.

Denise Hoagland
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If Denise Hoagland doesn't cooperate she says the city will use eminent domain to condemn her house and buy it for $400,000. "They are stealing property from homeowners," says Hoagland. "Look behind me. An ocean view. I challenge anyone in the world to tell me where I can find that view for $400,000 on the Jersey Shore."

Hoagland says she is not interested in the city's money because she does not want to leave her house and uproot her family. For a dozen homeowners the issue is property rights. Homeowner Bill Giordano says eminent domain is antithetical to the American Dream. "In America, property ownership is recognized as a major component of the American Dream," says Giordano. "For someone to come and turn the dream into a nightmare is just totally un-American."

eminent domain
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The neighborhood suffered a huge setback in June when the U.S. Supreme Court in a five to four decision ruled against homeowners in a similar dispute -- the Kelo case. The justices said New London Connecticut could use eminent domain to condemn a house for private development if it served a public benefit such as tax revenues and jobs. The Kelo case appeared to give government and private developers the upper hand. But today the ruling is suddenly giving property owners a big boost.

There has been a strong emotional response that cuts across the political spectrum and economic class, says Chip Mellor, president of the Institute for Justice. Opinion polls conducted after the Supreme Court ruling show overwhelming opposition to the use of eminent domain for economic development. The result is a national backlash that surprised people on both sides of the issue.

Under eminent domain, public use originally meant public works such as the transcontinental railroad and the Brooklyn Bridge. But starting in the 1950's public use was expanded to include urban renewal and other projects involving private development. That expansion was upheld in the recent Supreme Court decision.

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The Supreme Court did leave an opening for state governments by emphasizing their power to place further restrictions on the use of eminent domain. That's just what is happening. Since June Congress and at least 35 state legislatures have been considering measures that could make it harder to condemn private property.

The mayor of Long Branch, New Jersey, says the backlash could devastate struggling cities. "I think the reaction has been simplistic and knee jerk," says Mayor Adam Schneider. He insists government needs the power of eminent domain to assemble properties that will attract private investors.

"Towns like Long Branch that have deteriorated for a number of reasons will have a difficult time rebuilding themselves unless government -- state and federal level -- want to come in with a mass infusion of funds," says Schneider. Even if this means taking someone's home.

The head of the International Economic Development Council, Jeff Finkle, says lawmakers must move slowly or in a few years they will have to undo the legislation they are working to pass. A lot is at stake, he says.

For example, in a rundown section of Washington D.C., plans for a new stadium for the Washington Nationals baseball team depend on the use of eminent domain to acquire the needed land.

various sides
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And what about New Orleans? If the federal bills pass, they could hinder redevelopment. The city might not be allowed to condemn some private property for fear of losing federal funds. When asked how he can defend a policy that essentially guts the American dream of home ownership, the IEDC's Jeff Finkle responds, "Generally we are gutting blight. What we are trying to get to is eliminate the slums and blight and put people under a better place."

Finkle points to the success stories that relied on eminent domain. Among them the Times Square makeover, including the new headquarters for THE NEW YORK TIMES, Baltimore's Inner Harbor waterfront, San Diego's new ballpark and the NASCAR complex in Kansas City.

Are there alternatives to eminent domain? The Institute for Justice, which represents the homeowners in New London, says yes. "Cities will always have available to them many, many opportunities and powers to create incentives and to promote economic development," says Chip Mellor of the Institute. "They do not need to resort to eminent domain. I don't think there is any danger at all of the legislation that is being considered handcuffing the cities in a way that is counterproductive to their future."

The Institute for Justice says it will represent the New Jersey homeowners if their dispute ends in condemnation. Homeowner Denise Hoagland says eminent domain is a violation of her rights and she will not sell her home. "What is our birthright? A constitutional right to own property. I'm not going to stand idly and let someone take it from me."