News from the Tennessee Valley Opinion


Condemnation case also about city-corporate ties

The nation's obsession with a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the Constitution does not prevent a municipality from condemning the property of one private owner so it can give it to another is overdue.

The controversy is also one that deserves the attention of Decatur City Council, not that members are prone to using eminent domain to advance economic development. To their credit, they are not.

The Kelo case, however, is not just about eminent domain. Underlying the dispute is a legitimate public concern for alliances between government and big business. Public anger over the Supreme Court's decision stemmed from its unwillingness to monitor that relationship.

In an interview shortly after Monday's decision, Dana Berliner, a lawyer for the homeowner plaintiffs, described the same pattern that Decatur has experienced. "(The) developer will offer to bring more tax dollars to the city by a new development, but only if the city can guarantee the land the developer wants. ... Every legal business produces taxes and jobs. If that's a public use, what's a private one?"

One of the points the lawyer raised — unsuccessfully — to the Supreme Court was that the anticipated benefit was not even definite. A lower court had thrown out 11 of the eminent domain cases because New London, Conn., had no plan as to how the properties would benefit the city.

Developers made a wish and the city granted it.

One-sided deals like this anger Ms. Berliner.

"There should at least be contractual and statutory assurances in place at the time of condemnation that created a reasonable certainty that the project would indeed result in the claimed benefits," she said.

What Ms. Berliner said about eminent domain also applies to local governments. Our elected government "is not a tool for private developers to assemble prime real estate, or for cities to increase their coffers."

As developers get increasingly brazen in their request for state and local dollars, it's a lesson our elected officials would do well to heed.

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