The power of eminent domain, embodied in the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment, is so great that it nearly invites abuse, even when the government uses its power for constitutional, and even honorable, reasons.
Case in point: The U.S. Park Service has designed a memorial for Flight 93, the one that crashed in rural Pennsylvania on 9/11. The plans have been in the works for some time, with the government and representatives of Flight 93’s victims working with the property owners—even explicitly assuring them in 2002 that eminent domain would not be used.
As time passed, however, and the self-imposed deadline to have a memorial in place for the 10-year anniversary of the tragedy grows nearer, the government has become impatient and now plans to condemn the land of the seven owners (representing about 500 of the planned 2,200 acre memorial and national park) who have not yet worked out a deal with the Park Service.
While there are two sides to every story, it seems that the property owners have been flexible and open to negotiation—a far cry from the extorting hold-outs against whom eminent domain is supposed to be invoked:
“It’s absolutely a surprise. I’m shocked by it. I’m disappointed by it,” said Tim Lambert, who owns nearly 164 acres that his grandfather bought in the 1930s. The park service plans to condemn two parcels totaling about five acres — land, he said, he had always intended to donate for the memorial.
“To the best of my knowledge and my lawyer, absolutely no negotiations have taken place with the park service where we’ve sat down and discussed this,” Lambert said.
Lambert said he had mainly dealt with the Families of Flight 93 and said he’s provided the group all the information it’s asked for, including an appraisal.
Even if some takings of property are warranted—a 9/11 memorial certainly fits the “public use” requirement—look at the abuse of power we have here. Setting aside the question of why Lambert’s five acres are so crucial to a 2,200-acre project (and whether the memorial needs to be that large in the first place), why the strong-arm tactics?
Instead of letting an otherwise legitimate contract negotiation—the very foundation of our private property system—run its course, the government is resorting to robbing people because they had the misfortune to own the land near the place a historic tragedy occurred. This type of abuse is why eminent domain must be used sparingly, and why courts must be vigilant in enforcing the Fifth Amendment’s protection of property rights.
H/T: Nicki Kurokawa.