2004-03-10 / Editorials

Mugged By City Hall

By Ronald Fraser

When tax hungry public officials team up with land hungry private developers, as is the case in the Queens Iron Triangle, innocent auto salvage business owners standing in the way are likely to get mugged city hall style. First, the city declares these viable businesses outcasts. Then their land can be forcibly purchased at a price the government deems "fair" and passed to a developer whose plans for the property will boost tax revenues.

The owner of Sambucci Brothers Auto Salvage, in business in the Triangle since 1951, recently told the New York Times, "You got thousands of people here making a living and landowners who have paid their taxes for decades, and we hear that we’re going to have our land seized. I can’t relocate this business. Where am I going to go?"

Instead of junkyards, the city wants a convention center, office buildings or a new stadium for the Jets or the Mets.

City Hall’s power to force owners from their land was originally restricted by the United States Constitution to public uses, such as building a public road or school. But private land developers, working hand in hand with City Hall, have found ways around these safeguards.

Amendment V to the Constitution reads, "No person shall…be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation." All 50 state Constitutions have similar restrictions.

Land owners once trusted local governments to respect the Constitution. But then the U.S. Supreme Court tipped the playing field in favor of land developers. During the 1950s urban renewal fever was sweeping the nation. Thousands of towns across the nation got the urge—with urban development grants from Uncle Sam—to tear down older sections of town and encourage land developers to rebuild on the confiscated land.

Property owners in these targeted areas, however, often refused to sell. And since urban renewal did not fall under the traditional eminent domain definition of "public use," a few stubborn owners could stop a town’s urban renewal mania in its tracks.

Then, in 1954, by changing the longstanding requirement for public use to one of "public purpose," the Supreme Court in effect rewrote this part of the Constitution. To exercise eminent domain powers, local governments no longer had to show the land would be used for a bona fide public use. Governments could take private property by simply declaring that the plans for the property serves a public purpose. It no longer mattered that the land the government forcefully takes from private citizens ends up in the hands of private land developers.

According to a report by Dana Berliner titled Public Power, Private Gain and published by the Castle Coalition, a project of the Washington-based Institute for Justice, "State and local governments took this [court action] as a green light. First they condemned slums, then blighted areas, then not very blighted areas, and now, perfectly fine areas…that happen to appeal to local bureaucrats who are hungry for dollars."

The report lists hundreds of eminent domain abuse cases between 1998 and 2002 in all 50 states and goes on to say, "New York is perhaps the worst state in the country for eminent domain abuse…It has condemned small businesses for the New York Stock Exchange, the New York Times, Costco and Stop & Shop…This enthusiasm for eminent domain is encouraged by the courts, which rubber stamp every condemnation… ."

The good news, according to the coalition, is that threatened land owners are able, if they act in time, to fend off abusive government. At its Web site www.CastleCoalition.org, land owners will find a lot of practical advice. For example, the "Eminent Domain Abuse Survival Guide" lists early warning signs that a land owner is being targeted and what steps should be taken to defend one’s property.

The Founding Fathers believed the duty of government was to protect the rights of property owners, not prey on them. Officials in New York should respect the original intent of the U.S. Constitution, and stop using their eminent domain powers as a corporate welfare subsidy for politically favored businesses.

Ronald Fraser Ph.D., writes on public policy issues for the DKT Liberty Project, a Washington-based civil liberties organization. He can be reached at fraserr@erols.com

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