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Monday, February 06, 2006

40 States Re-Examining Eminent Domain

From a story in the Washington Post:

The city wants Anna DeFaria's home, and if she doesn't sell willingly, officials are going to take it from the 80-year-old retired pre-school teacher.

In place of her "tiny slip of a bungalow" _ and two dozen other weathered, working-class beachfront homes _ city officials want private developers to build upscale townhouses.

Is this the work of a cruel government? Or the best hope for resurrecting an ocean resort town that is finally showing signs of reviving after decades of hard times?

Echoes of the debate are happening across the country, after a U.S. Supreme Court decision brought new attention to governments' ability to seize property through the tool of eminent domain. Some 40 states are re-examining their laws _ with action in Congress, too _ after the court's unpopular ruling.

"We thought this was going to be our home forever," said DeFaria, sitting in a kitchen cozy with photos of children and grandchildren, quotes from the Bible and a game of Scrabble that she plays against herself. "Now they want to take it away. It's unfair, it's criminal, it's unconstitutional."

Not according to the Supreme Court. In a 5-4 ruling last June that was greeted with widespread criticism, the court found that New London, Conn., had the authority to take homes for a private development project.

The Constitution says governments cannot take private property for public use without "just compensation." Governments have traditionally used eminent domain to build public projects such as roads, reservoirs and parks. But for decades, the court has been expanding the definition of public use, allowing cities to employ eminent domain to eliminate blight.

The high court, in its ruling, also noted that states are free to ban that practice _ and legislators around the country are thinking about whether they should do just that.

New Jersey state Sen. Diane Allen, with bipartisan support, is pushing for a two-year ban on all eminent domain actions and for a bipartisan study group to re-examine its use in New Jersey.

"Right now government, I think, is using eminent domain to take people's private properties and hand it over to another owner," said Allen, a Republican. "It's really putting a hole in the American dream. Ownership of private property plays such a large role in that dream."

After the court ruling, four states passed laws reining in eminent domain. Roughly another 40 are considering legislation. In Congress, the House voted to deny federal funds to any project that used eminent domain to benefit a private development, and a federal study aims to examine how widely it is used.

The Washington-based Institute for Justice, a libertarian advocacy group that worked for homeowners in the New London case and in Long Branch, argues that state laws should be changed so property can only be seized for public uses like a park or a school _ not urban redevelopment that benefits private developers.

For the rest of this story go here.

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