Fighting Eminent Domain Abuse

Popular outrage over eminent domain abuse may have waned a bit since the Supreme Court’s poorly-reasoned Kelo ruling in 2005, but economic development takings remain incredibly unpopular throughout the country. Public opinion polls indicate that more than 80 percent of Americans oppose eminent domain for economic development, which is surprising when one considers the relative inaction on the part of state legislatures to meaningfully protect their citizens’ property rights.

However, there are reasons to be optimistic. Brooklynites fighting the proposed Atlantic Yards development filed a lawsuit today challenging the legality of the Metro Transit Authority’s land handout to the private developer. In Texas, citizens will soon vote on widelysupported Proposition 11, which would amend the Texas Constitution to prevent area blight designations and condemnations, and prohibit takings for purposes of economic development. If it passes, which seems likely, Texas property owners will have some of the strongest protections against eminent domain abuse in the nation.

But there is a lot of work to do. Many in this country are still largely defenseless against development takings, so the question arises: What can property owners do to take back their rights from revenue-hungry municipalities and rent-seeking developers? The law, as it stands, is against them in most respects, but there are legislative avenues worth pursuing.

A few of the most politically-feasible are:

  1. Enacting state legislation mandating the creation and maintenance of a public eminent domain database accessible via the Internet. Currently, data on development takings are difficult to obtain due to the fact that eminent domain condemnations are ordered at the local level. Right now, an empirical analysis of takings within a state would require contacting every county clerk and requesting specific filings. A central state database would allow social scientists, journalists, and the public to examine the economic effects of eminent domain use and abuse.
  2. Enacting state legislation defining “public use” as “use by a government body,” which would deny municipalities the opportunity to claim that their takings deals with private developers serve the “public purpose” because they will ostensibly increase tax revenue at some future date.
  3. Enacting state legislation mandating that blight be determined on a parcel-by-parcel basis.
  4. Enacting state legislation mandating that Tax Increment Financing (TIF) be limited to the length of time required to complete public infrastructure improvements within a given TIF district. This would reduce the ability of rent-seeking private developers to collude with local officials to subsidize development projects.

These proposals could also be enacted through ballot initiatives, if the state allows them. As eminent domain is primarily a local issue, Congress is a less likely venue for legislative relief. However, it is possible for Congress to tie federal development and highway funding to takings behavior (as they presently do for myriad other “carrot-and-stick” purposes). For example, a bill was introduced in the previous legislative session that would cut off federal development grant money for 10 years to any state that permitted an eminent domain condemnation for the benefit of a private developer.

With the five-year anniversary of Kelo coming up next summer, a renewed interest in the harm caused by eminent domain abuse will hopefully materialize.