There is little question that the concept of eminent domain has been greatly expanded through the years.
Originally intended as a means of ensuring that projects of public necessity, such as roads or other public works construction, would not be held up by one or two recalcitrant landowners, the legal concept is now regularly used for private developments held to be in the public interest.
Last week, several Mississippi House leaders announced they would sponsor legislation to prohibit the use of eminent domain to take property for the benefit of businesses.
Eminent domain allows governments to take property for a fair market price - even when the owner doesn't want to sell - if it's deemed in the broader public interest to do so. The site for the Nissan plant in Canton was secured through the process when some landowners didn't want to sell. Because its impact on the economy and thus the tax base was significant, the state exercised its powers of eminent domain.
Those powers were recently upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled a Connecticut city could use eminent domain to uproot residents in an old and stable neighborhood in favor of an upscale residential and commercial project that would increase the local tax base. This was one of the more overtly strong-armed uses of eminent domain to benefit private developers, and it was impossible not to feel empathy for the uprooted homeowners.
But any efforts to restrict eminent domain must be carefully weighed. When used with judiciousness, it can be a critical tool in economic development and in transforming blighted areas.
Eminent domain likely won't have to be used to secure the property necessary to complete the Wellspring industrial site near Blue Springs, because options have been negotiated on the needed property. But theoretically, without eminent domain one property owner could prevent a huge industrial employer from coming to the site and providing jobs to hundreds or even thousands of Northeast Mississippians.
Similarly, projects like the Fairpark District in downtown Tupelo could not have proceeded without eminent domain as a tool. Although private developers will certainly benefit from Fairpark's success, the city ultimately will gain significant new tax revenue and a languishing area that had been officially designated "blighted" will become a public and community asset.
Property rights are among the most central to a free society. That is the point of the House sponsors of the eminent domain legislation, and they're right that those rights must be taken very seriously.
But any law must be carefully constructed to make room for those rare cases where the public benefit outweighs the property owner's right to stand in the way of a project. The Connecticut situation seemed to be a case of governmental overreaching, but others may not. The policy key is in knowing and acting on the difference.
Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal: www.djournal.com