George III would love N.D.
It isn't often we see a conjunction of opinion and outrage on right and left like we're seeing now after the "Kelo v. City of New London" U.S. Supreme Court case. The court ruled that wealthy developers may, through eminent domain, force riverfro...
It isn't often we see a conjunction of opinion and outrage on right and left like we're seeing now after the "Kelo v. City of New London" U.S. Supreme Court case. The court ruled that wealthy developers may, through eminent domain, force riverfront property owners in New London to sell for commercial development. Juicier property taxes and employment justify it.
We shouldn't be too surprised, though. The taking of private property for private use under eminent domain has steadily grown in the United States, overthrowing the notion of taking only for public use. Now we see its use under the guise of enriching the community by enriching private companies. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's dissent is right on the mark: "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."
Courts at all levels have generally caved to these abuses of eminent domain because they don't see property rights as civil rights. The right to keep property wasn't always so lightly dismissed: James Madison thought the main point of government was to protect property "of every sort." Early Americans typically viewed the right to property as the basis for liberty and a counterbalance to government power. An author on the history of property rights in America notes that the "framers did not separate personal and property rights."
Unfortunately North Dakota has been in the vanguard of this abuse of eminent domain. In the mid-1990s private developers in Jamestown, hand in hand with Hugo supermarkets (supplied by Nash Finch) and city government, condemned land that regional grocery chain Leevers owned in Jamestown. The land in dispute was not blighted in the traditional sense of the word. Leevers, which had a downtown store, wasn't just forced to sell to a far more powerful competitor, but to a competitor that received tax increment financing.
The Century Code specifically outlaws subsidizing competition as "unfair," but too many eyes had dollars signs in them to care. The result was the closing of the downtown Leevers, leaving Jamestown where it was originally-with just one supermarket (Hugo's) in the heart of the city.
Leevers fought back but lost in District Court and the North Dakota Supreme Court, essentially because in this state government can take your property away if it's "blighted" - i.e., not producing maximum revenue in its opinion - under urban renewal or to enhance city coffers. What exactly did our state legislators, then-Gov. Ed Schafer's yawning administration, and our black-robed masters in court think the North Dakota Constitution meant when it called "acquiring, possessing and protecting property" an "inalienable right"?
My wife's and my letters and phone calls protesting what was happening in Jamestown did get us a "why are you concerned" question from the Jamestown Sun's newspaper editor. Oh I don't know, maybe because as North Dakota residents we also would be affected by the state's new outlook on private property. And don't mess around with the big boys. Nash Finch requested the Jamestown Police Department to check into my wife's background, a request that was relayed to the Fargo police who in turn asked us what it was all about. The latter, as far as we know, considered the request a joke and dropped it.
North Dakota's wretched abuse of eminent domain may now be imitated nationwide, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court's witless decision. We own our property only until Lardbutt Industry wants it and can convince the proper municipal authority to condemn it. For this kind of governance we rebelled against King George III?
Nelson is a Fargo postal worker and regular contributor to The Forum's commentary pages. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org