Private apparatchiks?

I'm glad to see the issue of takings of private property for private use is finally before the U.S. Supreme Court:

In New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere around the country, public officials are increasingly moving to seize property through eminent domain. The idea is to let private developers bulldoze the property and erect upscale condos, offices and shops in hopes of infusing new life into a vacant shopping center, a neighborhood or an entire town.

Whether that's a good thing depends on whom you ask.

Tomorrow, the U.S. Supreme Court will wade into the debate by hearing arguments in a Connecticut case that could result in one of the most significant property-rights decisions in recent history.

It is unclear how, or whether, the decision will affect hundreds of proposed redevelopment projects in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

But public officials and property owners from the Jersey Shore to the Main Line and beyond are watching closely because the court is likely to address a crucial question: Under what circumstances should local government have the authority to take private property and give it to a private developer?

Property owners in this region have sharply divided opinions.

The U.S. Constitution's Fifth Amendment says this about the taking of property:
Private property shall not be taken for a public use, without just compensation.
It beats me how "public use" has been translated into private use, and I think it's another example of how the plain language of the Constitution has been twisted beyond all meaning.

I grew up near the suburban town of Ardmore, Pennsylvania, which has a number of commercial buildings built before and after World War I. I consider them part of Ardmore's charm. They're old, but mostly pretty, and above all, they have character. They're all are occupied with thriving, relatively upscale businesses too.

This, however, has not stopped local bureaucrats from declaring the area "blighted" -- a move towards condemning these older buildings in favor of larger, fat-cat type private developers:

There is one "blighted" urban neighborhood where the sophisticated shopper can still find a decent cappuccino and a $6,000 hand-tailored business suit, all without ever leaving the Main Line.

Downtown Ardmore was declared a "blighted area" under state law on Thursday night by a unanimous vote of the Lower Merion Township Planning Commission. The move put Ardmore in a league with parts of North Philadelphia and Norristown, which critics decried as absurd.

This is the latest twist in the saga of the Ardmore Transit Center Plan, a $140 million project to transform this aging Lancaster Avenue shopping district into an urban village centered on a new R5 train station. It is designed to reverse an exodus of businesses and create pedestrian links to the Suburban Square shopping mall next door.

Officials eschew the word blight as an antiquated legal term, preferring to call these 10 blocks of Ardmore an "area in need of revitalization." Similar areas have been declared in Jenkintown and Norristown, as well as vast swaths of Philadelphia under Mayor Street's Neighborhood Transformation Initiative.

"You really can't avoid the word blight ," said Lower Merion planner Angela Murray. "It's in the law. People associate it with North Philadelphia, but it's actually very broad."

Declaring an area blighted under state urban redevelopment law gives officials a leg up in the competition for state and federal redevelopment money. It also brings increased power to seize private property by eminent domain - precisely what critics fear most.

The township's plan for Ardmore is a package of six projects creating 90,000 square feet of retail space, 150 apartments and 670 parking spaces.

One proposal would demolish 11 buildings in the first block of East Lancaster Avenue to make way for the "Gateway Mixed-Use Development," a $40 million retail complex and parking garage.

Though the downtown is spotted with vacant storefronts, the targeted block has no vacancies. It is home to family-run businesses, such as the Hu-Nan Chinese restaurant and Suburban Office Supply, that have been in Ardmore for as long as 70 years. Merchants and residents blistered the microphone for four hours Thursday night.

They did it anyway, and I think it's not only an abuse of government power, but a damned shame.

Not that my sentimental feelings about the place where I grew up should be controlling. If the private owners of these buildings decide that they'd make more money tearing them down and putting up newer buildings, well, that's their right, and like it or not, it's called progress. But why should the government step in and decide to confiscate an older building and give it to Wal Mart? Why can't the big guys just offer a fair price to the owner?

Constitutional violations aside, something about this process would seem to invite political chicanery, if not outright corruption. Want a good deal on a piece of property? Contribute large sums of money to the right guy's campaign, and it'll be yours for a song!

I hope the Supremes slam-dunk this thing, but there's no way to tell . . .

UPDATE (02/22/05): Eugene Volokh links to a revealing USAToday article on the case:

A ruling in the New London case could have "ramifications for property owners and governments across the country," says Perry, who submitted a "friend of the court" brief for a California-based libertarian group, the Reason Foundation, that sides with Kelo.

New ground for high court

Governments have used eminent domain for private developments in recent years in New York City's Times Square and at Baltimore's Inner Harbor, for example. But never has the Supreme Court, faced with an appeal from property owners, agreed to resolve the question of whether property can be transferred to private developers to boost tax revenue.

Those backing Kelo include the NAACP and AARP, which say the social harm can outweigh the public benefits when governments take property for private economic development. The groups say government efforts to lure business and spur greater revenue can disproportionately hurt the poor, the elderly and racial minorities.

Those backing New London include the National League of Cities and the National Conference of State Legislatures. They say cities should have wide latitude to take land to boost their economies and that money generated by redevelopment can help public agencies such as police and fire units.

With libertarian groups and the NAACP on the same side, I'm more optimistic than I was.

Noting that the Institute for Justice is behind the case (something an omission by USAToday failed to emphasize) Eugene Volokh also links to this more through Knight-Ridder report.

The Institute for Justice (a great organization, BTW) has a lot more here.

posted by Eric on 02.21.05 at 10:58 AM


Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Private apparatchiks?:

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hear hear!

IMHO "we" (most people, including myself) don't pay enough attention to local politics. We get so busy reading international/national news and concentrate on the names the MSM feature that our local mayors, city councils, county supervisors run largely under the radar.

And some of the most corrupt practices of bribery, kickback and sweetheart deals take deeper root than crabgrass.

The wink-wink nudge-nudge between local officials and developers should be stopped in its tracks.

Darleen   ·  February 21, 2005 12:21 PM

Over the years, public use had been turned into public good. As such, the increase in tax revenue benefits the public good. Or so the argument goes. This is arguably the most important property rights case ever.

SayUncle   ·  February 21, 2005 12:37 PM

"Private property shall not be taken for a public use, without just compensation."

Just compensation should be just that: the owners dispossessed should have a proportionate stake in all future use of their properties, including any income received and any taxes collected or levied.

Otherwise it's called corruption.

J. Peden   ·  February 21, 2005 1:49 PM

I don't suppose it would do any good to argue before the court:

"Private property shall not be taken for a public use, without just compensation.

But, your honor, we're not taking it for public use, we're taking it for private, which is clearly allowable here."

Mike   ·  February 21, 2005 2:33 PM

I don't see how anybody can defend this outright robbery. Everybody on the Left should oppose it because it only benefits Big Business. Everybody on the Right should opposite as the epitome of Big Government violating sacred private property rights. Only the most corrupt corporate-statists will defend it.

You would never see this nonsense in Narberth! Im waiting for the state to condemn a few square feet behind my house so they can expand the road. This is public use. Damn them.

mdmhvonpa   ·  February 21, 2005 10:39 PM
mdmhvonpa   ·  February 22, 2005 12:49 PM

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