A Redefinition of 'Public Use'
Private developers and officials of a small Connecticut town were the only cheerleaders in 2005 when a misguided U.S. Supreme Court ruling upheld the condemnation of waterfront property for private development.
Just about everybody else called it a blatant misinterpretation of the constitutional right of eminent domain. That case involved a smelly situation in which homes were condemned to make way for a commercial development. In effect, property in one set of private hands was wrenched away and thrust into other private hands.
Now the subject has reared its head in the North Carolina General Assembly, where a constitutional amendment is proposed to protect Tar Heel property owners from similar encroachment.
Legislators have proposed eminent domain amendments in the past, but their efforts never made it through the legislature to the ballot box. This proposal, if approved by voters, would prohibit government entities from condemning private property for any purpose other than public use. Public use could be highways, railroads, utilities, courthouses or any facility serving an overall community purpose.
The language sounds simple enough, and certainly the intent is noble. On the surface, it would appear to be a big improvement over the “public purpose” upheld in the Connecticut case, which apparently was broad enough to include a municipality’s greed — a money-grubbing desire for bigger tax collections.
But here’s hoping the legislature will carefully study the language of the proposed amendment before sending it to the voters. Eminent domain is sometimes a valid and valuable tool to achieve important community purposes. To avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater, the language of this bill should be examined in detail and comprehensive research should be pursued before it comes to a legislative vote.
This sounds like a valid approach, but let’s make sure we get it right before we create a new potential error in the effort to eliminate an old one.
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