The tiny town of New London, Conn., had seen better times. City infrastructure was crumbling, tax coffers were less than full and economic development seemed a far-distant dream.
So when drug giant Pfizer rolled into the area in 1998 with plans to construct a research campus on the fringe of town, city officials gave the corporation an emperor's welcome. The new project would include office and retail space, a hotel and conference center, town-homes and apartment buildings.
The problem was that in the middle of the proposed Pfizer swath sat Fort Trumbull, an older neighborhood that included nearly 120 commercial and residential lots. The owners of 15 of these properties, including Susette Kelo, who owned a small home standing in the path of development, decided they would not sell.
The New London Development Corp., a private entity controlled by the city government, claimed eminent domain and ordered the condemnation of the 15 lots.
Outrage ensued, and litigation soon followed, but in 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Kelo v. City of New London that the city could, in the name of economic development, condemn the homes and turn the land over to private developers.
It is not uncommon for government to invoke eminent domain for the public good to build a new road or to advance an urban revitalization project. John Echeverria, executive director of the Georgetown Environmental Law and Policy Institute says that, after all, eminent domain "is a long-standing and traditional governmental power that's essential to accomplish all kinds of purposes."
But it is a power that has also long been controversial, he is quick to point out. "The controversy," he says, "has had to do with when a new private owner ends up owning the property. People ask, 'Will this new owner be the primary beneficiary of the project, and did they highjack the governmental process to line their own pockets?'"
Issues concerning this tug-of-war over power and land rights have increased into a nationwide trend. The power struggle often ends up settled on Election Day. This places community citizens and public service providers in the decider's seat, making it imperative that they educate themselves before the ballot is in their hands.
A Troubling Wind Blows Across Western Open Spaces
The wildly unpopular Kelo decision provoked a firestorm of opposition from private property rights advocates across the country as well as a large measure of concern by communities who feared the far-ranging precedent of the Kelo decision on their local land-use planning. Kelo seemed to be the catalyst for the emerging question of just what constitutes private property rights and what right government has to "take" private property without fair compensation through regulation or legislation.
Emotions run high on both sides of the argument. Many Americans galvanized by Kelo, felt that lawmakers had overstepped their boundaries in regulating personal property and have responded with hell-fire determination. An equal or even greater number of people have become convinced that they must fight ill-conceived ballot initiatives that would grant virtually unlimited rewards to a cadre of rich developers and builders.
These developers and builders would gut local land-use planning and leave sprawling, unplanned development in their wake. In addition, these communities would be underserved by few public safety services, inadequate schools, clogged roads and none of the essential public services such as parks, libraries and open spaces that make for a quality livable community.
More than a dozen states, including California, Washington, Oregon, Arizona and others in the West, have considered or will soon be presented with ballot initiatives dealing with the perceived loss of private property rights in land-use planning. …