Eminent domain abuse in Alabama


Neal Boortz tells a horror story from Alabaster, Alabama. A mall developer wants to build next to the Interstate, but some property owners don't want to sell. As Boortz puts it,

That, my friends, should be the end of the story. If one private individual wants to own a certain piece of property, but the legal owner of that piece of property doesn’t want to sell it, the private property rights of the owner of the real estate should be recognized, and the person trying to buy the property should back off.

Next week the Alabaster city council will begin condemnation proceedings to seize the land by eminent domain. The council will then sell the seized land to the mall developer.

How can they do this? The 5th Amendment only allows government to take private property for public use. How can this town's leadership justify taking private property for the benefit of another private party?

So, Alabaster’s “public use” excuse is that the current owners of the land simply don’t pay enough taxes. The land needs to be seized and turned over to someone who will generate some more tax payments. Those additional taxes can then be spent on the public. There’s your “public use.”

You do realize, don’t you, that this very same excuse can be used by any government entity anywhere in the United States that wants to increase its tax revenues? Let’s say that you’re sitting fat and happy in a home that has been in your family for generations. You’re sitting on about five acres in a prime location near a major city. A local developer wants your property to build a subdivision of cluster-mansions. You don’t want to sell. The developer goes to the county commission and tells them that if he had that property he could build at least 15 homes there worth about $600,000 each. The developer correctly points out to the politician that the county could collect thousands of dollars in additional property taxes if he could just get his hands on that land and build those homes. A few weeks passes and one day you get a letter from the county attorney telling you that your property is going to be seized by the county. Their only excuse is that they can get more tax dollars if your five acres had 15 homes than they can with your 60 year-old farmhouse. The “public use?” More tax revenues.

If governments can abuse the concept of eminent domain in this manner then your private property rights are virtually non-existent. You own your home only so long as the local politicians tolerate that ownership. Let some developer come along with a better idea, and you can kiss your dirt goodbye.

Can't happen in Tulsa? It happens all the time. The Tulsa Development Authority used eminent domain to seize much of the land where the Reynolds Center now sits, and some of the land in the new section of University of Tulsa's campus west of Delaware Avenue. The University of Tulsa is a private, sectarian institution. TU let the city know what land it wanted, and the city took care of removing recalcitrant owners.

So far as I am aware, the City of Tulsa hasn't used condemnation powers at the direct request of a business, but some city leaders have openly discussed the possibility. Developers want to build retail in Midtown, now that Midtown is fashionable again. But most of Midtown's commercial areas are too small to accommodate suburban big box stores. The developer's preferred solution is not to redesign the store to fit the site, but to take adjacent houses and assemble enough property for a big development. If some of the owners won't sell, city officials would force them to sell.

There is an organization monitoring eminent domain abuse -- the Castle Coalition, a branch of the Institute for Justice.

Here is the Castle Coalition's list of the top 10 eminent domain abuses, summarized by Boortz:

* Removing an entire neighborhood and the condemnation of homes for a privately owned and operated office park and other, unspecified uses to complement a nearby Pfizer facility in New London, Connecticut.

* Approving the condemnation of more than 1,700 buildings and the dislocation of more than 5,000 residents for private commercial and industrial development in Riviera Beach, Florida.

* A government agency collecting a $56,500 bounty for condemning land in East St. Louis, Illinois, to give to a neighboring racetrack for parking.

* Replacing a less-expensive car dealership with a BMW dealership in Merriam, Kansas.

* Condemning a building in Boston just to help the owner break his leases so that the property could be used for a new luxury hotel.

* Seizing the homes of elderly homeowners in Mississippi and forcing them and their extended families to move in order to transfer the land to Nissan for a new, privately owned car manufacturing plant, despite the fact that the land is not even needed for the project.

* Taking the building of an elderly widow for casino parking in Las Vegas, claiming it was blighted but without ever even looking at the building .

* Improperly denying building permits to a church in New Cassel, New York, then condemning the property for private retail as soon as it looked like the church would begin construction.

* Condemning 83 homes for a new Chrysler plant in Toledo, Ohio, that was supposed to bring jobs but ended up employing less than half the projected number because it is fully automated.

* Forcing two families (along with their neighbors) to move for a private mall expansion in Hurst, Texas, while spouses were dying of cancer.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on August 22, 2003 10:32 PM.

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