The Eternal Recurrence of Eminent Domain Abuse

Perhaps the only good thing to come out of the now-famous case of Kelo v. City of New London was a nationwide acknowledgement of both the importance and precariousness of property rights. In the wake of this startling case, a case in which Susette Kelo’s house was taken from her and given to a private developer as part of a large corporate welfare package for Pfizer, forty-three states passed laws forbidding their governments from taking private property for the purposes of economic development or for increasing tax revenue. To add insult to Kelo’s injury, the economic redevelopment project for which her house was destroyed eventually stalled. Where the house once stood there is only a vacant lot.

Susette Kelo and her case have been back in the news. It was recently announced that Jeff Benedict’s excellent book about the Kelo case, Little Pink House, will be made into a Lifetime movie staring Brooke Shields as Susette Kelo. Benedict also recently penned an op-ed in the Hartford Courant describing how Justice Richard N. Palmer of the Connecticut Supreme Court approached Kelo and Benedict at a reception and apologized to her. Benedict touchingly describes the scene:

Afterward, Susette and I were talking in a small circle of people when we were approached by Justice Richard N. Palmer. Tall and imposing, he is one of the four justices who voted with the 4-3 majority against Susette and her neighbors. Facing me, he said: “Had I known all of what you just told us, I would have voted differently.”

I was speechless. So was Susette. One more vote in her favor by the Connecticut Supreme Court would have changed history. The case probably would not have advanced to the U.S. Supreme Court, and Susette and her neighbors might still be in their homes.

Then Justice Palmer turned to Susette, took her hand and offered a heartfelt apology. Tears trickled down her red cheeks. It was the first time in the 12-year saga that anyone had uttered the words “I’m sorry.”

It was all she could do to whisper the words: “Thank you.”

Other groups are shedding light to the rampant eminent domain abuse across the country. The Moving Picture Institute recently released the Battle for Brooklyn, a critically acclaimed documentary telling the story of a neighborhood’s struggle against a redevelopment plan in Brooklyn. Also, Reason TV has produced a spectacular mini-documentary on the eminent domain abuses that led to the destruction of a close-knit, African-American Manhattan neighborhood in  in the ’50s and ’60s. As writer James Baldwin once said “urban renewal means Negro removal.”

Yet despite new state laws, Lifetime movies, apologetic justices, and excellent documentaries, Kelo still is good law. City governments everywhere still have the power under the U.S. Constitution to take your property and give it to someone who will (allegedly) bring more tax revenue to the city.

Eminent domain conflicts can also be a source of bureaucratic pettiness. In Alexandria, Va., the Old Dominion Boat Club is currently fighting a battle against the city’s plans to take its land for a redevelopment project. The Boat Club sits at the foot of King Street, the main thoroughfare of Old Town Alexandria, and it has been fighting to keep its property since 1973 when the federal government tried to claim large areas of land in violation of property boundaries that have been well-defined since 1791.

Now the city seeks to take a 73-foot easement known as Wales Alley. The city originally offered the boat club $150,000 for the easement, which the boat club wisely declined. Instead of upping their offer, the city decided to get petty and issued a local restaurant an outdoor dining permit along the same parcel of land.  The case now sits at a stand-still as the parties try to come to a settlement. If a settlement cannot be reached, the Boat Club will consider charging the city with contempt for violating a judge’s ruling that the club has the right to use the alley to get boats to their parking lot.

Unfortunately, this type of bureaucratic bullying is quite common. Your property may seem largely guaranteed until the government thinks that something better could be done with it. If this happens, it will become quite clear why property rights are a foundation of a free society. For Susette Kelo, the former residents of West 99th and 98th streets, or the Old Dominion Boat Club, the importance of property rights became, or has become, something more than an abstract philosophical question. Or, as Radley Balko is fond of saying, “libertarianism happens to people.” Watch how it happened to the residents of West 99th and 98th streets: