9/19/2007

Protecting property rights: Raleigh NC News & Observer, 8/21/07

Opinion

By Daren Bakst

Pick any state other than North Carolina and you'll find much greater protection of property rights. Yet when the state House recently attempted to address two major property rights issues - eminent domain and forced annexation - there was one huge obstacle in the way: the state Senate.

In 2005 the U.S. Supreme Court, in the Kelo v. City of New London (Conn.) case, held that government could take property for economic development reasons.

In reaction, many states have taken steps to provide their citizens greater protection against eminent domain abuse. Last year seven states, including Georgia and South Carolina, passed constitutional amendments limiting government's eminent domain powers.

And in late May, the N.C. House of Representatives overwhelmingly endorsed (104-15) a constitutional amendment to protect North Carolinians from having their homes and other property seized for economic development.

The bipartisan vote showed that the need for eminent domain reform here is widely recognized. North Carolina, more than any other state, needs a new eminent domain constitutional amendment. Ours is the only state constitution that doesn't expressly include any eminent domain protection.

Opponents of eminent domain reform say there's no need for an amendment. To them, existing legislation is adequate to protect our property.

This argument is disingenuous at best. Following this logic, North Carolinians wouldn't need to have any rights protected in the state constitution, since legislation could protect all of our rights. I doubt anyone concerned about individual rights could make that argument with a straight face.

Eminent domain abuse doesn't just involve property rights. It also involves civil rights, particularly when it comes to urban renewal laws. Governments have used "blight" as an excuse for taking property for economic development. In urban renewal laws, "blight" is defined so broadly that almost any property could be taken.

The effects of blight laws have been disastrous, particularly for minority communities. In testimony to the U.S. Senate, Hilary O. Shelton, the NAACP's Washington Bureau director, explained that "Indeed, the displacement of African-Americans and urban renewal projects are so intertwined that 'urban renewal' was often referred to as 'Black Removal.'"

Despite all of the reasons to pass a constitutional amendment, the state Senate simply ignored the House legislation that proposed one. The Senate leadership sent the amendment bill to the Ways and Means Committee, which hasn't met since 2001. In other words, they tried to kill the amendment.

The Senate also has shown disregard for property rights through its actions on another major issue that also happens to have significant civil rights implications.

Forced annexation involves the power of cities and towns to take over adjacent unincorporated communities against the will of the people living in those communities. Opponents of forced annexation want to get rid of this backward practice. North Carolina is one of only a handful of states that still has forced annexation.

Unfortunately, neither the House nor the Senate has been willing to take on the powerful municipal lobby, which is subsidized by taxpayer dollars. However, the House was at least willing to study the issue of forced annexation. The Senate, from all accounts, opposed even a study of forced annexation.

Too many senators apparently think that there's nothing wrong when communities that don't need urban services from a city are forcibly annexed, while areas that do need services are ignored.

Apparently it isn't worth senators' time to consider two recent studies, one from the Cedar Grove Institute for Sustainable Communities and another from the UNC Center for Civil Rights. Both found that, while not necessarily intentional, minority communities are being excluded from municipalities.

Apparently it doesn't raise alarms when a Goldsboro City Council member argues (in a 2001 letter) that was admitted into a court docket, that "... Goldsboro (the city) is not growing, especially our young white families and according to the census, we might even be losing people. Thus the annexation of this area would not only add good tax base to Goldsboro, it would also help us keep our racial make-up in check, which in my opinion is very important to our future."

Next year, the Senate can redeem itself by showing it does care about North Carolinians' fundamental rights. I hope more senators will be brave enough to fight for constituents and not for municipal power.


Raleigh NC News & Observer: http://www.newsobserver.com

Daren Bakst is legal and regulatory policy analyst for the John Locke Foundation: http://www.johnlocke.org