Court should swing back the pendulum
We know how we’d be voting on eminent domain if we had a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court: No.
In a case from Connecticut with potentially sweeping consequences, the court will consider the definition of “public use” as it pertains to the power of government to acquire property and then turn it over to developers.
The pendulum has swung much too far toward a liberal definition of “public use,” which traditionally meant a highway or reservoir – something everyone would use for the benefit of the community. Property owners who didn’t want to sell were taken to court, where a judge determined “just compensation” for the government taking their land.
In recent years, however, the definition has been stretched to make way for shopping centers, casinos and the like. (The Connecticut case is about a riverfront hotel.) Initially, local governments were able to define an area as “blighted” and make a case for economic improvement, arguing that the generation of growth and taxes was good for everybody and therefore constituted “public use.”
Now, some places don’t even bother with the blighted definition. Officials decide that whatever is proposed will be a higher use, and so justify using the powers of eminent domain to force out unwilling property owners.
This is obviously abuse of government power. It doesn’t matter what the higher use is; if it’s not a justifiable public-works project (and some of those are quite debatable), then an individual’s property rights must prevail.
We’ve seen only a couple of examples of the issue surface in Carson City, and neither rose to the level of the case before the Supreme Court. One was extension of the redevelopment district to the Costco site, which involved public property.
The other was consideration of eminent domain powers in the downtown redevelopment district for properties like the Lucky Spur that had stood vacant for many years. Fortunately, the Lucky Spur is being remodeled; before, a strong argument could have been made for blight.
We certainly hope the Supreme Court’s decision to hear the Connecticut case means justices recognize the extent of the problem. And we hope it writes a definition of “public use” that gets government out of the business of bullying property owners on behalf of developers.