The Rev. Joseph Karasiewicz, pastor of Poletown's Immaculate Conception Church, was prescient when he explained to The Washington Post why he was resisting G.M.'s government-backed invasion. "This is an evil law and we have to fight it," he said of the statute that authorized condemnation of the neighborhood. "You can't establish some type of crooked law and then say you did it legally. This has national implications and national scope. It sets a bad precedent."
In the wake of Poletown, courts across the country have endorsed forced transfers of land from its rightful owners to people with more political clout -- from homeowners to condominium developers, from small businesses to large businesses, from churches to retailers.
Last fall the Nevada Supreme Court cited Poletown in upholding the condemnation of land to be used for casino parking in Las Vegas.
"Poletown was the first major case allowing condemnations of areas in the name of jobs and taxes," explains Institute for Justice attorney Dana Berliner, who co-authored a brief urging repudiation of the decision. "It is cited in every property textbook in the country."
An aspect of the decision that was intended as a safeguard -- a requirement that a project's economic benefit be "clear and significant" -- has had a perverse impact, encouraging larger seizures of land and hyperbolic predictions about jobs and revenue. Even in Poletown, employment at the heavily subsidized G.M. plant fell far short of the 6,000 jobs the company promised.
In the case that prompted the Michigan Supreme Court to reconsider Poletown, Wayne County predicted "thousands of jobs," "tens of millions of dollars in tax revenue," a broader tax base, and "accelerated economic growth." But if the project failed to deliver those results, no one would be accountable.
Such projections are, in any case, beside the point. "It's the principle of the thing," Poletown resident Kris Biernacki told The Washington Post in 1981. "I think the whole thing stinks. I just don't believe it happened. It's breathtaking. We didn't have a voice in it -- not a voice. We didn't want to move. We were literally forced to move out. We were just told to go."