Knocking on our doors

Columnist : Albert Paschall

I deal with a lot of local government people. Most of them are nice folks. I couldn’t do their job for all the money in a town’s budget. Considering the off-the-wall demands they often get from their constituents they really have to keep their tempers in check.

On the other hand maybe some of the constituents need to smarten up. With the new law of the land, if somebody from local government knocks on your door you could be in for a big surprise. They might be there to condemn your home or business in the name of economic development.

In the state that boasts WalMart as its largest employer, economic development is very subjective. For the last two years, Pennsylvania has lost an average of 2,000 manufacturing jobs a month, hardly a sign of a robust economy. In Maryland, WalMart is under attack because a disproportionate number of its employees rely on taxpayer-subsidized welfare programs.

But last summer the US Supreme Court re-wrote the Constitution. In what is probably the most controversial decision handed down since 1973, it gave local governments the powers of eminent domain for economic development.

The benchmark case is one of the most bizarre. About five years ago a hard-working Connecticut nurse got a knock on her door. It was the city of New London serving notice that her home and those of her neighbors were being condemned so the city could sell them to a developer. In turn the developer promised to build condos, a marina and a hotel. Last June, the US Supreme Court held that the city could demolish the homes of Suzette Kelo and her neighbors.

In Pennsylvania one of the worst cases was in Chester County. In bucolic Valley Township the Saha family went through years of legal torture when the neighboring borough of Coatesville came knocking on their door demanding 48 acres of their family farmland to build a recreation center. Only a political firestorm started by the citizens Coatesville saved the Saha farm when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court wouldn’t review the case.

Filching your home actually isn’t the worst thing your local government can do to you in the name of economic development. Suppose a developer wants to build a new strip mall behind your home and needs a second driveway. The government could condemn for a right of way through your backyard to accommodate the shopping center. You’d be paid for the land, but what is it worth to you when several thousand cars go past your back door every weekend?

In Pennsylvania, efforts are underway to counter this awful decision. Two watered-down bills are inching through the General Assembly that would limit the ability of governments to steal your home or business. They’re watered-down because a lot of people in local government want this power.

A more creative approach is being employed in Weare, New Hampshire. A group has been formed to demand that the town seize the homestead of US Supreme Court Justice David Souter. Its success is unlikely but the good justice may spend a few restless nights pondering how it feels when the government wants to confiscate your home.

There’s been an elegant private-sector solution offered to slow down the government’s wrecking balls. BB&T Bank, based in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, is the nation’s ninth largest financial institution. Last week, BB&T Chairman, John Allison announced that the bank would not lend money to developers who use eminent domain to secure property. Someday if responsible bankers all over the nation follow BB&T’s lead; the private sector will slow attempts by governments to come knocking down
our doors.

Albert Paschall
Senior Fellow
The Lincoln Institute of Public Opinion Research, Inc.