Saheli*: Musings and Observations
Friday, February 25, 2005
 
The Last Straw

I remember watching part of Doctor Zhivago when I was very young and being absolutely horrified when the good Doctor comes home to his beautiful house and finds it overrun with comrades because the revolution has claimed it. In typical good Doctor fashion, he tries to welcome them and even sees the merit of the case that in freezing Moscow shelter should be shared, but despite his positive attitude it smelled wrong. He owned the house, it was his house, and the arrogance and unfairness of someone taking it from him stung me to my child's core. Somehow I felt they could have asked for all kinds of things--more money, more labor, more whatever--but taking away his house, ad hoc, was impermissible. That's not fair. It was a thought followed by relief that it wasn't a problem I'd ever have. I lived in a country where things were fair. I was probably only a little older when fair came to mean something more precise: due process, the right to counsel, property rights, freedom of religion and speech and the press and of the right of the people to gather and petition.

It's usually infringements on the first Amendment set that infuriate me, because they're more common--I thought. But apparently even the right to property--a right you'd think would span across the political spectrum in its universal appeal--is not remotely safe. From a stellar column by Carol Lloyd in today's SF Gate:
Property seizure has always been an option for governments when a given piece of land is needed for a public use such as a park or school, or a freeway or a military base; in return, the government is obligated to pay fair market value. But in the case of the Kelos and six other families who have sworn not to leave their little cottages in New London's once vibrant working-class, waterfront neighborhood of Fort Trumbull, invoking eminent domain was justified not by a need for a public use, or even to rid an area of urban blight, but by the city's desire for hard cash. . ..New London has hit on hard times, and after pharmaceutical giant Pfizer built a $270 million research facility on an adjacent property, the city saw the possibility that Fort Trumbull could be more than a collection of modest single-family homes. With the right mix of retail, recreation and residence, it could attract the kind of shoppers, . . . So the city invoked the power of eminent domain over the neighborhood and slated it to be leased to a private developer for 99 years for $1 per year. In exchange, the developer is supposed to develop a high-end office building, a hotel, condos and other as-yet-undetermined projects.[emphasis mine]
Slate's Dahlia Litwick covered the actual Supreme Court hearing with her usual irreverent wit early this week, but for once I am not amused:
Scott G. Bullock represents the homeowners, and his first words to the court strike terror in the heart of anyone who looks into their backyard and sees the ghostly outline of the Target housewares section looming over the trees: "Every home, church, and corner store would produce more tax revenue if it was turned into a shopping mall," he says. There can be no limit to what the state can condemn if the only requirement is that the proposed project improve the tax base. . . .[Scalia] describes Horton's [the pro-development lawyer's] position as: "You can always take from A and give to B, so long as B is richer." And O'Connor offers this concrete example: What if there's a Motel 6 but the city thinks a Ritz-Carlton will generate more taxes? Is that OK? Yes, says Horton."So you can always take from A and give to B if B pays more taxes?" asks Scalia."If they are significantly more taxes," says Horton. [Emphasis mine]
Litwick ends her dispatch with a silly guessing game about Horton's mysteriously truncated closing statement, and her "strike terror" line is dismissive in a cliche. But it's exactly right. It should strike terror in the heart of individual property owners everywhere. Because there is always going to be a better way to generate taxes off your land--and there is always going to be a large corporation or private conglomerate who can make a case for their ability to generate those taxes. Instead of a communist government ganging up on property owners for the sake of poor people, this is government ganging up on property owners for the sake of wealthier entities. That just makes it more wrong.

Lloyd's article has plenty of history about eminent domain, and how private developers are increasingly using it to get a hold of land they want. The cottage owners of New London are just the first group brave enough to fight all the way to the Supreme Court. Odd as it sounds, I hope that Justice Scalia can save the day. Thanks to Andrew for pointing all this out.
 


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Saheli Datta started this when she was a journalism student at Columbia in New York. Now she lives in the Bay Area. *Old people call me R. New people, call me Saheli. Thanks! My homepage. Specifically, my links. Email me: Saheli [AT] Gmail [dot] Com

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Yglesias:Tpmcafe
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