By Kirsten Brock
Last Friday, private property owners were handed a victory in Eugene when developers Tom Connor and Don Woolley sent a letter to Eugene Mayor Kitty Piercy. In it, they said that they don’t want the Eugene City Council to use eminent domain to help them acquire downtown property.
The issue started when developers Connor and Woolley presented their plans to the Council to revitalize Eugene’s ailing downtown. To spur economic growth, they wanted to work with the Opus Group to build a parking structure, a hotel, a movie theater, apartments, restaurants and shops on Broadway. Connor and Woolley already own some property in the area, but said their plan couldn’t go through without purchasing a neighboring parcel that includes local businesses. The businessmen asked the Council to obtain the land for them, which the city admitted might have involved condemning property using eminent domain.
Eminent domain is a right reserved for the government that allows private property to be condemned so it can be seized and put to public use. Traditionally, public use meant building a neighborhood playground or widening a road, for example. Recently though, the government has been interpreting public use much more widely. In this case, the reasoning might be that Connor and Woolley would be able to build businesses that are more profitable than those they're trying to buy. More profits mean more taxes, which the city can then use for public projects — hence “public use.”
For weeks, a debate has been raging in Eugene over the matter. Should the Council be able to use eminent domain to condemn private property and then sell it to another private party? Sane people said “no”; widening a road is one thing, but condemning property and selling it so the government can make more money is completely different.
Luckily for us, the developers don’t want to see the city strong-arm its citizens into selling their family businesses. Connor and Woolley want to try to work with their neighbors and try to reach an agreement that satisfies both parties. Hopefully the city will be able to help the local businesses relocate to other sections of Eugene in return for selling their land downtown.
Eugene is not the only city dealing with this threat to private property rights. After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the government’s right to seize property for private development in Kelo et al. v. City of New London in 2005, people across the country have been facing losing their homes and livelihoods to developers.
The landmark decision in 2005 was about the city of New London, Conn., trying to seize a number of homes along a riverfront for commercial development. The case was appealed all the way to the Court, which ruled 5-4 for the city. In the majority opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote that “promoting economic development is a traditional and long-accepted function of government.”
And all this time I thought that protecting private property had been a “long-accepted function of government.” Silly me, it seems.
Even before the decision, local governments found ways to use condemnation to improve living conditions. The Institute for Justice, a nonprofit Washington D.C. public-interest law firm, has counted more than 10,000 cases between 1998 and 2002 where eminent domain was used to sell private property directly to other citizens. Even though that number is staggering, it’s almost certainly less than the real amount because Connecticut is the only state that counts the times it uses condemnation. The only way for the institute to find how many cases of cities using economic eminent domain there are nationwide is to count news stories and court cases, raising the question of how many went unreported.
While I am as pro-business as the next Republican, I can’t stand developers being given special rights over small business and home owners. The fact that our government believes that it has a responsibility to force economic growth is both frightening and infuriating. Using condemnation to increase tax revenue or make a city prettier is something I hoped I’d never see.
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