It takes a village...of property owners

Larry Elder

7/21/2005 12:00:00 AM - Larry Elder

It's "almost as if God has spoken," said Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
 
To what did the House Democratic leader refer? The Sermon on the Mount? The Martin Luther King Jr. "I have a dream" speech? Democratic National Chairman Howard Dean's latest rant? Go to the head of the class if you guessed Pelosi's remark related to the Kelo v. City of New London property rights Supreme Court case.

 In Connecticut's Kelo v. City of New London case, the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, supported the city's use of eminent domain to force a private property owner to sell to a private developer. While conceding that the properties could not reasonably be called "blighted," the Court nevertheless said, " . . . [T]he city is endeavoring to coordinate a variety of commercial, residential, and recreational uses of land, with the hope that they will form a whole greater than the sum of its parts." The decision acknowledged that New London's development plan does not allow the general public to use the land, but stated that since the "plan unquestionably serves a public purpose, the takings challenged here satisfy the public use requirement of the Fifth Amendment." Incredible.

 Meanwhile, in Zimbabwe, a corrupt government takes productive farmland and gives it to incompetent cronies and relatives of President Robert Mugabe, leaving 4.5 million of the country's 11.6 million people facing starvation in this once-fruitful South African breadbasket. Mugabe recently implemented "Operation Murambatsvina" ("drive out trash"), seizing and demolishing homes, market stalls and gardens. Mugabe says the "clean-up exercise" aims to rid towns of "criminals" and "illegal black-marketeers inhabiting unsanitary slums." Sound familiar?

 Governments historically use eminent domain to acquire private property for "public use," defined as a road, bridge or a school. Here, the city bluntly acknowledges its goal -- a higher tax base.

 The community-rights-trump-individual-rights crowd cheered the decision. "We have a lot of properties in my city [Memphis]," said Rep. Harold Ford, D-Tenn., " . . . that are crying out for development. . . . I've always been one to believe that individual rights is a big thing [but] there is some real value to this decision."

 Departing Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote a blistering dissent: "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."

 How often does government take private land for private purposes?

 Most Americans, no doubt, assume that this rarely happens. But according to the Institute for Justice, it occurs far more often than we think. From 1998 to 2002, government, at all levels, used eminent domain to acquire, or attempt to acquire, private property for private purposes on over 10,000 occasions.

 This brings us to Joy and Carl Gamble of Norwood, Ohio. The Gambles lived in their home in this town of 21,675 for 35 years. Carl recently retired as a grocery store owner, and he and his wife looked forward to spending the rest of their days in their beloved home. A developer approached the community, seeking to build restaurants, shops, office space, condominiums and a parking garage, and successfully bought out 65 owners, tearing down their property. But the Gambles and a couple of other neighbors held out. After court battles, where the Gambles lost at the trial and appellate levels, the Ohio Supreme Court issued a pre-ruling injunction, preventing the developer from dismantling any more homes pending the Court's decision.

 I interviewed Joy and Carl Gamble on my nationally syndicated radio program:

 Joy: Six months after we retired, we opened up the newspaper and found out this developer . . . wants our neighborhood. We had a nice home and a lovely neighborhood . . . we were not a slum. We were not a threat to the health and welfare of Norwood.

 Larry: The City Council said your neighborhood is deteriorating and blighted.

 Joy: "Deteriorating" is so broad. . . . Everybody's home is deteriorating. And now by this ruling by the Supreme Court, we are all renters. Nobody owns their home. . . . Matter of fact, we're worse than renters -- we're serfs.

 Larry: Higher tax base, more revenue for the city, so the heck with Joy and Carl Gamble.

 Joy: That's correct, and we lost our home. . . . We had to flee or be evicted.

 Larry: Did they offer you fair market value?

 Carl: Yes . . . but we haven't touched the money.

 Larry: You don't want the money. . . . You weren't going down to Florida and retire. You want to stay in your home.

 Carl: That's what we told them.

 Larry: They're offering you twice, three times, what they first offered you, Joy, and you're not taking it?

 Joy: It's not a question of money. It's our home . . . money does not buy everything.

 Both the NAACP and AARP filed briefs supporting property owners following the Kelo v. City of New London decision. And, in the case of the Gambles of Norwood, Ohio, their lawyer says the ACLU supports their case.

 No word, yet, on Robert Mugabe's position. But he's probably pleased.