Scene in Passing: Eminent domain: Scalpel or sledge hammer?
It was one of those stunning moments in which that old “end justifies the means” argument raised its head and a response rooted in precedent scalped it.
Somebody presumably unhappy with the historic Jack’s Bar at Carson and Fifth streets had sent in a question that was read during Monday’s town hall meeting asking why city government doesn’t consider eminent domain to rid the corner of what the questioner apparently views as blight.
“Carson City has never used eminent domain,” replied Community Development Director Lee Plemel, adding city government “can’t compel the property owner to do something with the property.” Plemel had handled a previous question about the Ormsby House Hotel, also owned by the same parties, regarding continual building permits.
Plemel said Cubix Ormsby LLC over the past decade has obtained multiple hotel work permits and extensions, which run three years for each permit/extension period. He later added that the cost to the LLC isn’t insignificant.
Anger or incredulity at Cubix Ormsby LLC and its principals, undoubtedly felt by some city residents, is unsurprising given human nature. But it is wasted emotion, and in a nation that at least pays lip service to property rights, the idea of using eminent domain to whip property owners into line is a stunning thought.
Government’s eminent domain use widened during the second half of the 20th and early part of the 21st century. Originally intended for true public purposes such as roads or other legitimate common needs, it morphed occasionally into an urban-renewal disaster or has been tried for other questionable schemes.
Some cities have considered using it to seize underwater mortgages and help homeowners, something perhaps seen as a noble cause by officials who also want to spur a quicker housing recovery. But that also is an “end justifies the means” slippery slope of the first stripe.
North Las Vegas this month showed Silver State common sense regarding the notion. The North Las Vegas City Council, voting 5-0, nixed a plan from Mortgage Resolution Partners to help that city acquire and refinance loans involving 3,900 mortgages, according business news service Reuters.
Richmond, Calif., however, still is considering some kind of similar plan. Such a contrast provides another good reason for living on this side of the Sierra Nevada.
And whatever you think of Carson City’s Ormsby House and Jack’s Bar, eminent domain is no solution.
Eminent domain must be used like a scalpel, not a chain saw in North Las Vegas or a sledge hammer here.
John Barrette covers Carson City government and business. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.