Eminent Domain

EMINENT DOMAIN….Via Avedon, Dwight Meredith writes about the increasingly questionable practice of local governments condemning land not for roads or schools or parks, but so they can turn it over to a private developer who wants to build a shopping center or an office building or a bunch of condos. This technique is commonly used in urban renewal schemes, sometimes for the best of reasons, but the common thread is nearly always the same: the new development, whatever it is, will produce more tax income for the city than the old one.

(Although there are exceptions. George Bush, for example, was the beneficiary of one prominent example of eminent domain used for private purposes when the city of Arlington spent $200 million to build him a baseball stadium. Bush undoubtedly fared a lot better in this deal than the city did.)

Here in Orange County, the city of Cypress recently got itself in trouble when it learned that a church had bought some nearby property and hastily decided it would rather have a CostCo there instead. Big box retailers bring in considerably more tax dollars than a church, you see. Unfortunately for Cypress, picking on a church makes the fundamental issues a lot clearer for most people, since it’s pretty obvious that tax revenue is the real driver in the deal. You might be able to convince people that a CostCo is a genuine civic improvement compared to a bunch of low-income housing and some old warehouses, but it’s a lot harder to sell them on the idea that it’s a step up from a church.

I have mixed feelings about the whole issue, since this kind of eminent domain is often used by redevelopment agencies for genuinely worthy urban renewal projects. Still, worthy or not, I have a hard time convincing myself that it’s a legitimate use of government power. What’s more, once you decide that private development is a legitimate use of eminent domain, it’s hard to figure out where the line gets drawn. Can a city condemn private land for anything that it thinks serves a higher purpose of some sort? What’s to stop it?

Read Dwight’s post for more about this. And be sure to read to the end for the punch line. He’s got a question for Texas home builders.