High-court seizure decision sparks uprising

Nation's Housing

July 24, 2005|By KENNETH HARNEY

TO CALL IT a backlash would hardly do it justice. Calling it an unprecedented uprising to nullify a decision of the highest court of the land would be more accurate.

In the four weeks since the Supreme Court sanctioned the seizure of private homes by municipal governments for private "economic development," a firestorm of reaction has broken out in dozens of state legislatures and in Congress.

At the federal level, the House adopted by a 365-33 vote a highly unusual resolution deploring the court's ruling. The House also voted 231-189 for a bill that would prohibit expenditure of any federal housing, transportation or Treasury Department funds "to enforce the judgment of the Supreme Court in the case of Kelo v. City of New London."

The court held that municipalities have the right to determine what constitutes a "public purpose" for eminent domain seizures - even if that means taking privately owned real estate and handing it over to private developers who promise to increase the local tax revenue base or increase employment.

In effect, the House told the court: You may have narrowly approved the Connecticut city's eminent domain seizures of homes for a privately developed and owned urban renewal project, but we have a weapon in this fight, too.

If the appropriations amendment passes the Senate, the city of New London will not be able to use key federal funds in any way, directly or indirectly, to move that project forward. No transportation money, no housing subsidies, no assistance from the U.S. Treasury.

Bipartisan support is building in the Senate for the broader-sweeping Protection of Homes, Small Businesses and Private Property Act of 2005, authored by Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican. That bill declares that it is Congress' view that "the power of eminent domain should be exercised only for `public use' as guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment, and that this power to seize homes, small businesses and other private property should be reserved only for true public purposes."

Under no circumstances, according to Cornyn, should local eminent domain powers "be used simply to further private economic development." If passed and signed into law, the bill would prohibit all uses of federal funds in any eminent domain seizures for economic development purposes.

At the state level, legislative moves are under way in more than two dozen states to rein in - or at least clarify - the powers of municipalities to condemn and seize homes. Eight states - Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Montana, South Carolina and Washington -impose restrictions in some form.

In Connecticut, Gov. M. Jodi Rell has endorsed a moratorium on eminent domain seizures, and called the issue "the 21st- century equivalent of the Boston Tea Party: the government taking away the rights and liberties of property owners without giving them a voice. But this time it is not a monarch wearing robes in England we are fighting - it is five robed justices at the Supreme Court in Washington."

The outraged reaction to the Kelo decision has erupted across the entire political and ideological spectrum, creating momentary bedfellows out of legislators who rarely agree on anything. Name another issue where House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas, Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters of California, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, the House's lone self-described socialist, Rep. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont Independent, evangelical Christian groups, Rush Limbaugh and Ralph Nader all are on the same side.

A few of the opponents of the Kelo decision are looking to mount direct action - sometimes tongue-in-cheek. A California group called Freestar Media LLC is organizing an effort to convince the town council of Weare, N.H., to condemn land owned by Supreme Court Justice David H. Souter. The idea is give the property to developers who promise to construct a hotel on the site, substantially raising town revenues and employment in the process.

Souter voted with the majority in the Kelo case. The name of the proposed project: The Lost Liberty Hotel, which will also feature a restaurant called the Just Desserts Cafe.

Logan Darrow Clements, Freestar's chief executive, insists: "This is not a prank. The town of Weare has five people on the Board of Selectmen. If three of them vote to use the power of eminent domain to take this land from Mr. Souter, we can begin our hotel development."

Just desserts indeed.

Ken Harney's e-mail address is KenHarney@earthlink.net

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