Supreme Court Needs to Examine Eminent Domain
There’s both good news and bad.
The bad: Phoenixville Area School District has a need to expand, but has had trouble finding space it likes.
But fear not. There is good news that might solve the problem.
Eminent domain could be used to seize the houses of all the district’s school board members, thereby meeting the necessary classroom space requirements.
That may seem unfair, but hey, the rights of the individual are trumped by what’s deemed by the elite to be in the public’s (or their own) best interest. And it would be perfectly legal, since the government can take private property in order to develop both public and other private property, pretty much any way it sees fit.
Seem far-fetched? Too intrusive in a free country?
The tragic reality is that the Phoenixville School District already has found a solution. Jettisoning the possibility of developing any of the 95 other tracts of land it considered, the District decided to instead seize the Meadow Brook Golf Club in order to build a new school, one that can be located near the high school so that a "learning village" can be created. Whatever that means.
In doing so, the district is seizing an 80-year old business — albeit one that might have been on the market anyway — and kicking property owners off land that had been in their family since 1896. And don’t hold your breath that there will be just compensation, since the district is willing to pay substantially less than what the owners had requested. The family was asking $8 million for the site and wouldn’t budge from that number, despite a recent district assessment of $3.725 million. The district offered $5 million.
Here’s the worst part: On Nov. 14, the school district voted to invoke eminent domain without even informing the property owners beforehand — who only discovered what had happened by reading it in the local newspaper. Pending a successful appeal (the prospect of which seems extremely bleak), the property changes hands on Dec. 15.
So because of Big Brother’s ever-increasing reach, over a century’s worth of memories, not to mention numerous jobs, will be obliterated in the span of just 30 days.
If that’s not the definition of classless, what is?
The truly disturbing part is that, while immoral and wrong, this is legal. But even more frightening is that no one is safe from eminent domain’s reach. In the past, government would seize property only for public works projects, but in 2005, the ball game changed — big time.
In a ruling that many consider one of the worst U.S. Supreme Court decisions in history, five mind-numbingly obtuse justices decided that citizens’ land could be taken by the government for private economic development, even if those properties were not in areas of blight or decay.
The criteria? When local or state officials think the public would benefit That’s enough leeway to dock a battleship.
Forget the original intent of eminent domain, which actually had the public’s best interest in mind when considering public projects, such as utilities, railroads and highways.
It seems those things, while necessary, just aren’t sexy enough for some of today’s pols.
Where’s the fun in just building a road when you can construct a mall with all the perks that come with being mayor or councilman in that location?
And when houses are bulldozed to make way for a plush resort — with wealthy land developers lining the campaign pockets of politicians who decide such matters — is that in the public’s interest?
As then-Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote in her dissent to the eminent domain decision, the "specter of condemnation hangs over all property. Nothing is to prevent the State from replacing any Motel 6 with a Ritz-Carlton, any home with a shopping mall, or any farm with a factory."
In other words, the rich and powerful get what they want, the politicians make out, and small property owners — 99.9% of Americans — get squashed.
Somehow, it’s doubtful the Founding Fathers had this in mind.
Most home and business owners are neither wealthy nor influential, so their options are extremely limited.
Fighting City Hall means huge legal fees with no guarantee of success. Loans are still difficult to obtain, so those victimized by misguided eminent domain judgments often are forced to tap into their retirement accounts to survive. And those on fixed incomes, many of whom previously only worried about property taxes, face the prospect of writing a mortgage or rent check for the rest of their lives, because self-interested politicians want their pet projects to come to life.
The use of eminent domain in America was supposed to be a last resort. When it had to be employed, landowners were to be given fair compensation, and, in most cases, the greater public good was easily recognized. The Blue Route (I-476) is a prime example. After years of court battles, the project was finally given the green light, and the highway remains one of the most important infrastructure improvements in Pennsylvania history.
But it is unfathomable that in today’s "Amerika," eminent domain has evolved into the weapon of choice for greedy, corrupt or simply misguided politicians and school boards.
It’s time for the newly comprised high court to revisit this contentious issue. In doing so, it would have the historic opportunity to right a huge wrong, and put the "c" back in "America."
Chief Justice Roberts, the floor is yours.
Chris Freind is an independent columnist and commentator. His print column appears every Wednesday. He can be reached at [email protected]