2005-07-01 / Columnists

From the Editor’s Desk

By Howard Schwach

It seems that private property is no longer private. The new rule is, if the government wants the land you bought and paid for, you’re toast.

It’s not that I don’t understand the need for the government to take private land for the public good. I have always believed in the right of eminent domain for the public good.

The Constitution has always allowed the taking of private property for the “public good.” What it did not anticipate is the government’s desire to take private land for the good of private developers who may or may not develop projects that would increase tax collections. That, however, is exactly what the court approved in a recent decision in Kelo et al, v. City of New London.

The government needs land for a school, fine. It needs to build a road and your house stands in the middle of the right of way. Too bad, you have to go.

That has always been the rule, and as long as the government paid fair market value for the land, there was no problem, as far as I am concerned.

The Kelo Decision made by the Supreme Court on Thursday last week, however, changed all the rules.

What public good, the court asked. We don’t need no stinkin public good. Greed is a good enough reason to take your land. Or, perhaps, just a good old payoff to the right politician will do the trick.

A divided Supreme Court ruled that local governments may now seize people’s homes and businesses against their will for private development.

Want to build a new office building that you will then rent to tenants for tens of thousands of dollars a month? Pick the piece of land you want. Tell the local government and, if the price is right and there is a benefit in increased business and taxes to the government, then they’ll get you the land whether the owner wants to sell or not.

The good old American way.

Economic growth of private property rights?

No question, economic growth and greed win every time.

Cities now have the wide power to bulldoze residences and businesses for such amenities as shopping malls and hotel complexes as long as they generate tax revenue.

Private property? With a Republican in charge? No chance!

Justice John Paul Stevens, writing the majority opinion in the 5-4 ruling, said that local officials, not federal judges knew best in deciding whether a development project will benefit the community.

The Connecticut homeowners who will now lose their homes argued that cities have no right to take their homes unless the planned projects had a clear public use, such as schools or roads, or to revitalize blighted areas.

Not even close. Move out people, an office complex is moving on in.

Among those now forced to move from their New London home is a couple who are both more than 80 years old and who have lived in the same home for more than 50 of those years.

“The city [of New London] has carefully formulated an economic development that it believes will provide appreciable benefits to the community including, but in no case limited to, new jobs and increased tax revenue,” Stevens wrote. He was joined in the majority by Anthony Kennedy, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Stephen Breyer.

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who often is the swing vote in conservative causes, wrote a scathing dissent to the majority decision. She wrote that cities should not have the unlimited authority to uproot families, even if they are provided compensation, simply to accommodate wealthy developers.

“Any property may now be taken for the benefit of other private party, but the fallout from this decision will not be random,” she wrote. “The beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with a disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms.”

She is right.

And, there are lots of reasons that she is right, not the least the fact that all local governments have proven to be corrupt at one point or another.

Witness the New York City Department of Buildings, whose chief inspector was arrested for taking bribes from building owners. Two or three hundred more instances? Give me five minutes.

How will the new ruling impact Rockaway?

Think about it.

Some would look at Broad Channel as a blighted community, what with its ramshackle look and small homes built out over the bay. The people who live there, however, do not see it as blighted.

Under the new decision, that would not matter.

Hey, I’m a big developer with lots of money. Why not make Broad Channel into a recreational island, with some fishing piers, perhaps a couple of restaurants, a hotel and a gambling casino. Turn it into another Key West. Why not?

Hire Governor Pataki’s brother-in-law or Senator Bruno’s son as your lobbyist, get the right city and state politicians on board and you got it.

The project would bring new jobs to the area, lots of new taxes.

Just like the Supreme Court said.

Those people who live in Broad Channel and love it. They don’t want to move. They want to stay on their little isolated island.

So what?

Eminent Domain. The Supreme Court says so.

Move em out. Get lost and go someplace else. Somebody needs to make millions.

You homeowners don’t count for anything. You’re just a small bump in the road to be smoothed out.

Give them a couple of bucks and send them on their way.

Or, how about this scenario?

The city decides that it needs an increased tax base in Rockaway. Tanger Mall comes to Mayor Bloomberg and mentions that the company would like to build one of its outlet malls somewhere near the beach.

What better place than Rockaway? The company needs 100 acres. Where to put it? How about Edgemere? The beachfront property between Beach 25 Street and Beach 35 Street between Seagirt Boulevard and the boardwalk would be just about right.

What is that you say, people live there? No problem, the mayor says. Eminent Domain! The Supreme Court says that it’s the thing to do.

Take the land. Send everybody elsewhere. Give the land to Tanger Mall. Lots of money spread around. Lots of jobs. Lots of tax money from people who will come from all over Long Island and Brooklyn to shop in the outlet malls.

The people who live there, who have lived there all of their lives?

Pay them a couple of bucks. Chump change in a project like this. Move them out.

See the way it works. How about a new restaurant complex in Breezy Point? A fishing pier and hotel in Neponsit? A strip mall on the Arverne bayfront?

Anything can happen. And, given that this is New York City, it probably will happen here as in New London.

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