A neighborhood torn down

Eminent domain brought down Detroit's Poletown enclave in 1981 to make way for a GM plant, but the justification is under fire elsewhere.

February 20, 2005|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

DETROIT - It has been almost a generation since the Poletown neighborhood here was demolished to make room for a General Motors Cadillac plant, and in the sprawling factory's vast parking lots and neatly landscaped campus there are no signs of the 1,300 houses, 140 businesses and six churches that were razed or the pitched battle to save one of the city's oldest ethnic enclaves.

The memory of Detroit's Poletown has cropped up instead in communities across the country over the past 20 years, as dozens of municipalities and courts in at least 10 states have relied on a landmark ruling from the Michigan Supreme Court in that fight to justify using the powers of eminent domain for economic revitalization.

But as the U.S. Supreme Court considers this week a case from New London, Conn., where property owners are challenging the taking of their homes for private development, the history of the high-profile Poletown case has been rewritten.

In a rare reversal of precedent, the Michigan court overturned last summer its two-decade-old ruling that allowed government to seize land for private development. A unanimous court wrote: "We must overrule Poletown in order to vindicate our Constitution, protect the people's property rights, and preserve the legitimacy of the judicial branch as the expositor - not creator - of fundamental law."

The decision has no binding effect outside Michigan, and it cannot undo the changes to Poletown. But it was a major victory for property rights advocates nationwide who argue that local governments increasingly have abused their eminent domain powers by seizing small businesses and homes in the name of economic development, jobs and tax dollars.

"Certainly, it tells the U.S. Supreme Court that other courts are worried about what's going on," said Dana Berliner, a senior attorney with the Washington-based Institute for Justice, which is representing the homeowners in New London. "It shows that state courts have begun to realize that things have gotten completely out of hand."

`Public use'

The U.S. and most state constitutions allow government to condemn property for "public use" as long as the landowner is compensated. Historically, eminent domain was used primarily for obvious public projects that required large, connected tracts - building highways and railroads, or schools and parks.

But eminent domain has also been employed for major economic development projects in which the seized land is turned over to private developers to enhance local tax bases and economies. The redevelopment of Baltimore's Inner Harbor more than 30 years ago is often pointed to as a widely successful example of that process, and the city has filed a friend of the court brief supporting local officials in the New London case before the Supreme Court.

"If cities are prohibited from using the power of eminent domain to stimulate economic development, then cities will not develop," City Solicitor Ralph S. Tyler III wrote in the brief filed last month. "And if cities do not develop, if they do not adapt to changing times and changing economic circumstances, city residents suffer."

Attorney Daniel J. Krisch, who represents New London in the case, said eminent domain is one way for Northeastern cities to compete for new industry that would otherwise be likely to locate in more land-rich states in the South or West.

"If you're in a city, what are you going to do?" Krisch said.

Critics counter that municipalities have overstepped their eminent domain powers and subverted the process into a huge corporate giveaway. A 2003 study by the Institute for Justice found that from 1998 through 2002, state and local governments seized or threatened to take more than 10,000 homes and small businesses for private development projects, many with dubious public benefit.

The study mentioned one instance in West Palm Beach County, Fla., where a family's home was condemned so the manager of a planned golf course could live in it. In another case from Lakewood, Ohio, officials designated a neighborhood of colonial homes as "blighted" - one step to begin condemnation proceedings - because the homes had small yards and lacked two-car garages. New plans for the neighborhood called for upscale condominiums and retail shops.

The study singled out Maryland, along with California, Kansas, Michigan and Ohio, as leading other states in the number of private-use condemnations filed in public records. Among cities, Detroit took first place.

Visibility and conflict

Since the 1960s, poverty-troubled Detroit has struggled to rebuild its economy and has frequently turned to eminent domain as a redevelopment tool, most recently for a refurbished downtown theater and new baseball and football stadiums. But no project has come with as much visibility and conflict as in the case of Poletown.

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