Not For Sale – Abuse of Eminent Domain

On June 23, 2005, the United States Supreme Court changed the course of Susette Kelo’s life when a narrow, five-to-four decision allowed Ms. Kelo to be driven from her beloved pink house by the water so that a private developer could assume ownership of her property. The Kelo v. City of New London court case set off an avalanche of eminent domain abuse by establishing a precedent that permits cities to take over private property from an owner and forcibly transfer the property to private developers under the guise of “public use.”

Owning property is the goal of many Americans and for those who have made this dream a reality, their homes or businesses are places of comfort and stability. But for many Americans, this dream is turning into a nightmare as their property is forcefully taken from them by abusive enforcement of eminent domain.  Eminent domain is provided for in the fifth amendment of the US Constitution where the government is granted the right of private property seizure as long as

“just compensation”

is provided and the land is used for the

“public good.”

But, Susette Kelo wasn’t forced to surrender her home for a public school or a road. Ms. Kelo lost her land to Pfizer, a private drug company that wanted to build a research facility where her house sat. Perhaps the biggest insult to Ms. Kelo is that while the court battle for her land waged, Pfizer moved to an alternative site. When the dust settled, Ms. Kelo’s home was razed for nothing more than an empty lot.

23087290-NOT-FOR-SALE-Rubber-Stamp-over-a-white-background--Stock-PhotoAs shocking as this example sounds, it is hardly an uncommon practice.  Despite federal limitations enacted in 2006 and subsequent restrictions on use of eminent domain in at least 45 states, cities continue to use the process to turn owner-occupied homes over to private developers on the basis of “redevelopment.” Aggressive use of eminent domain has been shown to target lower-income neighborhoods unfairly, often causing extensive damage to the social bonds of communities in addition to negative life-altering effects for displaced owners.

We have a problem.

  • Eminent domain has become too powerful. 
  • Eminent domain laws are too vague. 
  • Eminent domain serves as a catalyst for increased revenue and greed.

Use of eminent domain has its place and time but many cases today are unconstitutional.

Although eminent domain has been used commonly since the late 1800s to acquire property for government projects and public use, the practice of condemning property for private development became common when real estate prices soared in the 1990s. Modern efforts to redevelop cities have transformed the power of eminent domain from a last resort to a routine development tool.

eviction_notice

Today, the rift between the public interest and the interests of private developers is the core of eminent domain.  To put it simply, private developers want what they determine to be prime land and they will go to any means necessary to get it.  Even if that means displacing a family or an existing small business.

You may be thinking, “Sure, this sounds like an issue, but there must be a way to fight it.”  However, in that thought lies the second biggest problem with eminent domain today.  Many attempts at fighting proceedings fail or result in excessive legal fees and emotional stress.

Las Vegas resident Carol Pappas spent 11 years of her life battling eminent domain abuse. Ms. Pappas’s husband left her a commercial building in downtown Las Vegas hoping the rental income would provide for her retirement.  Not long after, Ms. Pappas received a letter telling her that her property was to be condemned so eight casinos could build a parking garage.  Among the 15 legal documents she received that day was one stating that she had 30 days to respond.  But what they didn’t tell her was that a hearing was scheduled in only seven days.  Ms. Pappas missed that hearing.  The judge granted title to the agency and the building was promptly demolished. Eventually, Ms. Pappas took her case to the U.S. Supreme Court and was awarded $4.5 million for her losses. Whether or not she “won” remains a subjective assessment when one considers the emotional toll and time invested in her case. Ms. Pappas passed away in 2009 at the age of 83.

Even though eminent domain is provided for by law, its use as a development tool and the failed attempts at stopping proceedings are major problems and should be considered abuse.  To gain a better understanding of how the power of eminent domain has been transformed we must examine the law itself and the incentive of cities to use it.

Vague language in the law and tax revenue issues are the two primary causes of eminent domain abuse.

The law states that private land can only be seized if doing so will

benefit the “public good” and if

“just compensation” is provided to the original owner.

The definition of “public good” is often expanded to meet the needs of the city officials.  To seize property legally, the area must be deemed “blighted.” But “blight” is a skewed term and each city sets its own standards. Jim and JoAnn Saleets’s home in the Scenic Park area of Lakewood, Ohio was deemed blighted because

it did not have three bedrooms, two baths, an attached two-car garage and central air. 

In a community that is over 100 years old, this definition meant most of the homes were blighted, including the mayor’s and all the members of the city council.

“Just compensation,” another slanted definition, is often limited to the appraised value of the land.

“Just compensation” fails to account for the “subjective value” that some people ascribe to their property.

Think of it this way, I married my husband in 2014 and our ceremony, though simple, was one of the happiest times of my life. My ring cost us a whopping $14.99. My wedding ring is a constant reminder of our love and the joy we shared that day with our family and friends. To me it is priceless. Suppose someone saw my ring and decided they wanted it. They looked online and found the same ring selling now for $4.69 on EBay so that’s what they offer me. You don’t have to be a genius to know that I won’t sell it for that. Nor would I sell it for $50, $500, or even $1,000 because THIS particular ring means more than money.

And what of the person who has spent her whole life in her home?  There is no way to replace the attachment of a home that has amassed years’ worth of memories and emotions. 

The second and perhaps greatest cause of abuse is the possibility of increased tax revenue for the city.

Seizure of privately owned land often results in millions of dollars in tax revenue for a city.  Homes, businesses, even churches are not safe from the abuse. In Cypress, California, the Cottonwood Christian Center’s property was condemned and given to a Costco because Costco pays taxes and the church did not.

Local governments are using eminent domain to take land away from private individuals because they claim surrendering it to big development companies will create a larger tax base and make more jobs available, which will in turn help the local economy.  But if we accept this excuse of economic improvement as justifiable means for using eminent domain then no one’s property is truly safe.

Eminent domain is still used in Indiana and, although reforms have occurred, the language leaves room open for unfair interpretation and abuse.

Everyone’s home and everyone’s property is precious to them; a place where they should feel safe from government involvement.  Abuse of eminent domain is destroying neighborhoods and communities as people find themselves on opposing sides of the debate.

Charlestown has witnessed growth from the use of eminent domain before. In the 1940s the government acquired thousands of acres of privately owned land to build the Indiana Army Ammunition Plant. The population boom that Charlestown experienced following the opening of the plant was unprecedented. But…there was a World War going on and duty called.

Now the term eminent domain is being linked to development in Charlestown yet again. We must recognize the difference between fair public use and governmental greed. Those in Pleasant Ridge who fear losing their homes are actively fighting for their rights. Those outside the neighborhood must not sit idly by. To remain silent while they come for your neighbors’ homes is to be complicit in the process. People fighting this fight cannot do it alone.

The names Susette Kelo, Carol Pappas, and Jim and JoAnn Saleet probably mean very little to you. But if you’re from Charlestown the names

Ellen Keith,

Melissa Love Crawford,

and Sally and George Doss

might be more familiar. These are the folks we see at the beauty salon, that we greet in the produce section of the Jay-C store, that we sit next to in bible study at church. Do we want to look into their eyes and tell them they no longer get to live in the homes they love and cherish?

stock-photo-community-word-cloud-heart-concept-425621863


Sources:
Adam Milsap, “The Injustice of Eminent Domain,” in U.S. News and World Report, November 17, 2015: https://www.usnews.com/opinion/economic-intelligence/2015/11/17/the-injustice-of-eminent-domain.
Danielle Grady, “Army to Industry: Old Ammunition Plant Shaped the Area,” in News and Tribune, November 12, 2016: http://www.newsandtribune.com/news/army-to-industry-old-ammunition-plant-shaped-the-area/article_790bd192-a840-11e6-8ae0-9f22712fbbd7.html.
Gerald A. Harrison and Keith A. Good, “Eminent Domain and Condemnation: The Taking of Private Property for Public Use in Indiana,” in Purdue University e-pubs: http://docs.lib.purdue.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2067&context=agext.
Ilya Somin, “How Eminent Domain Abuse Harms the Poor,” Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity, May 26, 2015: https://spotlightonpoverty.org/spotlight-exclusives/how-eminent-domain-abuse-harms-the-poor/.
Las Vegas Review Journal of October 27, 2009: https://www.reviewjournal.com/news/carol-pappas-foe-of-eminent-domain-dies/.
Richard A. Epstein, “Kelo v. City of New London Ten Years Later,” in National Review, June 23, 2015: http://www.nationalreview.com/article/420144/kelo-v-city-new-london-ten-years-later-richard-epstein.
Scott Bullock and Dana Berliner, “Eminent Domain Abuse Hurts America,” in USA Today, February 23, 2015: https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2015/02/23/kelo-supreme-court-city-homes-development-column/23673563/
 United States Department of Justice, “History of the Federal Use of Eminent Domain,” https://www.justice.gov/enrd/history-federal-use-eminent-domain.

Author: Treva Hodges

Resident of Charlestown, Indiana. Advocate.

One thought on “Not For Sale – Abuse of Eminent Domain”

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