Supreme Court on Eminent Domain

Limits to eminent domain use now unclear.

Jun 26, 2005

In a case involving the city of New London, CT, the court decided the city could use eminent domain to force 15 homeowners off their land even though the land will be used for private development.

The court seems to have extended the term 'public use'---traditionally limited to roads, schools, public utilities, etc.,---to mean 'public benefit', and includes taking land for private use as long as it provides an economic benefit to the community.

Unfortunately, the term 'public benefit' is so loosely defined that virtually any new development qualifies, especially considering that the underlying premise of new development is to effect economic stimulus.

Surprisingly, the liberal justices where the majority in this 5-4 narrow decision. They claim local government knows what's best, and that the federal court cannot deal with these types of issues. True, but the 5th Amendment was designed to provide a minimum threshold of protection to property owners; this decision failed to set any limits on the interpretation of 'public benefit'. Given that municipalities are heavily influenced by major local businesses and developers, this decision may lead developers to request eminent domain more liberally as a cheap and expedient way to obtain land.

However, the justices also claim that the law has not been reinterpreted; the case is a specific one involving the city of New London. The justices argued that in this case the city has developed a highly detailed development plan; it has setup an non-profit development arm to accept competitive bids for each of several independent development projects comprising the plan; it needs this development in order to save the economic health of the city; it will receive much greater property and sales tax revenue; and it is using eminent domain against only 15 of 115 property owners---the rest of whom negotiated acceptable compensation out of court.

How does this compare to the Destiny Research Center project? Unlike the New London case there is no detailed development plan; the development will not be bid on competitively, but is instead of, by, and for one developer; it is not needed to save the town of Salina (it's not even the town's initiative); the economic gain to Salina is questionable, since 29 existing taxpaying commercial entities comprising 400 employees must move; the developer is asking for a 30 year property tax exclusion (and more) while Salina's expenses will surely rise; and the use of eminent domain is being proposed as a first resort, not a last resort.

Perhaps, in some cases, the greater public good trumps the desires of a few, even when resistance is based on principle and not money. But in either case, compensation to property owners and businesses should be very generous to assure that eminent domain law is used only as a last resort and not abused.

Carlo Moneti
Syracuse, NY

Update: July, 16 2005
A review of the original decision document