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Supreme Court’s land grab

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The ownership society is working out just nicely. You can own your home as long as the government doesn’t want it for a shopping mall. Thank you very much.

The Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision today backing New London, Conn.’s economic development land grab may set the stage for another disastrous redevelopment era.

I’m a Connecticut native and worked as a newspaper reporter in that state for nearly 20 years, and I’ve seen little good come from the state’s urban economic developments efforts.

In the 1960s, New Britain, Connecticut, bought into the dream that every urban problem can be solved with a bulldozer.

It built a Y-shaped highway system through its downtown that destroyed neighborhoods and historic buildings. It relocated companies to industrial parks and built sterile, monumentally ugly brick apartment complexes for displaced residents.

New Britain lost most of its architectural heritage and soon most of its retail businesses. The highways made it easy for residents to travel to malls and shopping centers in the leafy suburbs.

Hartford, Conn., took a similar path. It obliterated historic areas and established neighborhoods along the Connecticut River to build “Constitution Plaza” – a concrete, soulless, lifeless wasteland of glass office buildings.

But Hartford didn’t learn. It’s now finishing a $1 billion project called Adrian’s Landing, which, I’ll boldly predict, is similarly doomed.

Not surprising New London is trying this bulldozing approach.

Connecticut’s wealth, its office parks and malls, are in the suburbs, not its cities. The cities are dealing with heavy property tax loads, populations that are skewed toward young, poor, aging, and fixed income. The schools are struggling and there’s crime galore.

These developments fix nothing. The architectural renderings are eye candy for desperate mayors who are out of money and ideas. Now, with this court ruling they can more easily buy into these development fictions.

This happens everywhere. Where I live today, in Washington DC., the government approved a baseball stadium in the hope it would spur economic development. Right.

Cleveland built a downtown stadium in 1992, and was ranked in 2004 by the Census Bureau as the poorest in the nation, with 31.3% of its population below the poverty level.

Ownership society? Someone has to pay. Thank You Supreme Court.

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About KOB

  • Good post. Nice evidence. Never thought about this stuff before. Thanks for bringing it up. Yes, developmentitis often gets out of hand, because it destroys neighborhoods where people live.

  • You are 100% right. I have been following a number of these cases across the Country and hoping that the Supreme Court would finally put a stop to this disgusting land grab. Instead they endorsed it. I posted an article on my blog today about this decision. Here is an excerpt from that post:

    Scenario #1. Your grandfather buys some land and builds a house on it. Your father and then you are born in this same house. You want to raise your kids in this house. The house has been well maintained and has been expanded over the years. It is now a beautiful home along the seashore with a wonderful ocean view.

    Scenario #2. Your grandfather buys an acre of land and builds a small retail store on the land. Your father goes to work with your grandfather and the two of them expand the business. You and your 3 brothers all join the business. The small retail store is now a much larger retail store which is supporting your families plus another 25 workers and their families. The store is now doing business in the same location for 75 years.

    The city where your house or business is located is approached by a large shopping center and hotel developer. They tell the mayor and city council that they sure would like to have the land your house or your business is on so they could build a huge regional shopping center or resort hotel on your property along with your neighbors property. They tell the mayor and city council that if they will take away your land and your business and let them build their shopping center or resort hotel on your land the city will get a lot more tax revenue than they ever got from your house or business. You say no way, that could never happen. Maybe in some Communist Country but not in America.

    Welcome to Communist America!

  • I’ve got nothing against eminent domain when it actually benefits “the greater good” — hospitals, schools, and sidewalks all need to be built, after all. But this case took perfectly nice homes and businesses from residents and said that a hotel/business complex would be better for the city than owner-occupied homes and neighborhood restaurants. A true disappointment from some justices I generally appreciate.

  • I can’t wait to see what legal experts think about this decision. For what it’s worth, my dad, who works in local government on these kinds of issues, was shocked by the decision.

    This is a decision that is likely to offend a lot of liberals and conservatives. On the conservative side, property rights are one of the fundamental conservative values, and there has been a big movement for property rights against what conservatives consider excessive environmental regulation of private property. On the liberal side, to cite two recent NYC examples, activists have protested attempts by the city to do this for both Columbia University and Bruce Ratner (who wants to build the downtown Brooklyn arena), citing the rights of socio/economic minorities and the significance of preserving neighborhood continuity.

    I don’t know enough about the facts of the case to know why the majority held in favor of New London, and it could be that this won’t be as drastic a decision as it sounds. At any rate, here’s a good legal blog covering this: http://www.scotusblog.com/movabletype/archives/2005/06/kennedy_a_limit.html.


    It’s interesting in that the most conservative of the SCOTUS held the dissenting opinion. Not only that, but isn’t Connecticut a blue state? If so, the whole matter seems anomalous to the similar cases cited above.

    Personally, I think this ruling really stinks, and having read comments by the approving SCOTUS as well, it doesn’t even fit that the majority should have gone to the developers.

  • Well, Rehnquist, and especially Scalia and Thomas, can be expected to hold the line on property rights. Advocating a really strong definition of property rights is really one of their core values, and you see this in environmental cases again and again.

    What I fear is that this case is going to galvanize anger towards “activist judges” on the Supreme Court among a whole new demographic. I guess what I mean is that I personally think the activist hype is overplayed most of the time . . . and this case could really help justify the “activist” tag for a much broader audience than the abortion and gay rights decisions.

  • BillB

    I always thought property rights were almost as sacred as some of the religious notions held so dear in this country.

    Evidently, like so much else, it’s the property rights of the “right” people and nothing more.

    Just another example of those with a pipeline to power getting the goodies; whether liberal or conservative. They all have their rational for justifying their greedy land grab and those of like mind (or motivation anyway) in places of power to see it through.

    Sorry for the cynicism, but I can’t help myself.

    Long live the almighty dollar!

  • Well, here’s CNN/MONEY’s take on it:

    Eminent domain: A big-box bonanza? Court’s ruling OKed land grab for business like Target, Home Depot, CostCo, Bed Bath & Beyond


  • Who is to decide whether or not businesses are as important to the public than public works like subway systems, parking lots or whatnot. Hopefully the states maintain their own rights and settle each as a case-by-case basis.

  • On public property you have all your rights, Tan. Freedom of speech, freedom to peaceably assemble, freedom to petition the government for redress of grievances, and all your other constitutional freedoms are in full force in a location such as a public sidewalk. (In theory, anyway. Local police can conveniently forget this sometimes, but that’s a whole other can of worms.)

    Suppose you want to collect petition signatures on private property, such as the privately owned shopping center which will result from this case. The owners of the property can kick you out if they don’t like the petition. They could let you collect signatures, but no law says they must. The Constitution does not protect you there.

    This is just one of many reasons to prefer genuine public use as the only legitimate justification for eminent domain. Seizing property from one private owner just to give it to another (supposedly “better”) private owner is the direct opposite of what the Constitution was intended to allow.

  • Nancy

    You’re not being cynical, BillB, you’re being a realist. Obviously according to the supreme court & the Smirk administration, the constitution & bill of rights only apply to the rich, for the rich, and by the rich. And the rest of the nation can go to hell.

  • MDE

    Is it the act of taking or the compensation package that is the problem here?

    What if it were changed from ‘fair market value’ to, say, 10xfmv or a percentage of the new enterprise?

    BTW, is anyone really surprised the the people in the Gov believe that (in the end) it owns all of the land? Their predecessors stole it and gave it to citizens in the first place.



    It’s the act of taking. These houses are hardly slums, many have been in the family for a long time and are well maintained. They are also in some prime spots along the river. Now, New London doesn’t realy need to use this land, I am sure there is plenty of industrial/commercial land not being used. This decision just sets a bad precedent.

  • Comment #5: “It’s interesting in that the most conservative of the SCOTUS held the dissenting opinion. Not only that, but isn’t Connecticut a blue state? If so, the whole matter seems anomalous to the similar cases cited above.”

    That’s probably as expected. More liberal thoughts favor the public, while conservatism favors individual rights.

    This whole ruling is just an interpretation of the Fifth Amendment, which prohibits seizing property for public use “without just compensation.”

    Case in point, there’s a road that runs between two cities in my neck of the woods. It’s all farmland. But a big mall was just placed on one end of that road, so now I predict the stretch will be developed bit by bit. But it’s farmland right now, so those boys will have to get some big cash before they can start buildin’.

    Blog author: Show me more evidence that the building of baseball stadiums has a direct correlation with poor citizens. And a new baseball stadium in DC hasn’t even been built yet.

  • KOB

    > Show me more evidence that the building of baseball stadiums has a direct correlation with poor citizens. And a new baseball stadium in DC hasn’t even been built yet< You're missing the point. Those backing stadiums, shopping malls, convention centers etc., in urban areas argue that these developments will help lift a depressed area. But that rarely happens. Urban development projects that demolish neighborhoods, historic buildings and tear apart familiar urban fabrics don't reverse the shift of wealth and money to suburban areas. They provide marginal jobs at great public expense.

  • Dave

    Why the sudden interest in the Supreme Court saying it’s okay to take homes and land away from people? The government has been doing this since it was formed and the general pubic was never concerned or became vocal about it. In fact, most people supported such a taking of land away. Why should it be any different now?

    Article VI, Clause 2 of the U.S. Constitution states that treaties “shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the Constitution or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding.”
    Yet, every single treaty between the American Indian and the U.S. has been broken by the government. As recently as 1999, U.S. policy has continued to break treaties created by the U.S. government in the late 19th century. The Danklow Acts (also called Mitigation Acts I and II), signed by President Clinton in 1998 and 1999, gave over 90,000 acres along the Missouri River in South Dakota to the state of South Dakota, land guaranteed to the Sioux people by the
    1851 and 1868 Fort Laramie Treaties. The Loyal Shawnee, who stood by the U.S. Government during the Civil War, are being denied the opportunity to regain lands taken for military purpose and that were promised to be returned when longer needed – so big developers can build an amusement park and other money generating projects. The list goes on. Where is the outcry by talking heads, disembodied radio voices, and literary giants of print? Silent. Does the general public care? No.

    The fat cats of today are no different from the land brokers and speculators of two centuries ago, yet such individuals as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson are now revered. George Washington speculated on land still under treaty protection, waiting for the influx of immigrants to overrun treaty borders. Andrew Jackson engineered the Indian Removal Act, and allowed the militias to remove peaceful families by force.

    Perhaps the justices who recently voted in support of developers and local governments, along with the greedy developers and officials themselves, will be revered two hundred years from now.

  • Washington, Jackson and Jefferson speculated on public land which was going to be released for private claims. They didn’t kick their neighbors off of established farms and then resell the land to someone else, using the force of the government to do it.

    The key distinction between this ruling and prior eminent domain policies is that it allows land to be taken not for the benefit of the public, but for the benefit of companies and individuals whose goals don’t necessarily serve the public good.

    And eminent domain land seizure has not been popular even before this. Many states have severe restrictions on it, and there are groups in virtually every state who oppose it on principle. It’s being used as a tool of social engineering and exploitation by opportunistic corporations and government entities, and a lot of people are very, very unhappy about it.

    You need to come down to Texas where they are covering the state with gigantic highways no one is going to use and seizing family farms and destroying communities to do it – all to benefit the governor’s cronies and companies and special interests who have a lot of political pull.

    It’s one of the most obscene violations of basic rights going on in America today.


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  • Joe Deasy

    Property “ownership” is rapidly becoming the great American lie. Property taxes exceed $10,000 per month for many people in some areas. What happens if those “homeowners” dont pay the taxes??? Exactly the same thing as if they didnt pay their rent… they get evicted by their landlord.