The American Dream is to start a small business and develop it through years of hard work and investment. Millions of small businesses form the backbone of the United States' economy, annually creating between 60 percent and 80 percent of new jobs.
Location is the key to most businesses, and entrepreneurs typically build their reputation at a particular spot. But lately, many have been greeted by a surprise message from city hall: Their town is taking their property for the benefit of someone else.
A lifetime of effort is suddenly snuffed by the arbitrary decision of a few councilmen or unelected city planners. Business owner can claim only an appraised value for the hollow building and land that he actually owns. He receives zero compensation for the goodwill and revenue stream from customers he has nourished for years. A business leasing its property usually receives no compensation. Employees get nothing.
Citizen outrage about these intrusions into private enterprise has reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which announced Oct. 3 it will address this controversy.
It has been 50 years since the high court has issued a major ruling in this area (Behrman v. Parker, 1954) and much mischief has happened in the meantime.
U.S. and state constitutions recognize the power of eminent domain but prohibit governments from taking property unless for a "public use," which traditionally meant building a public facility. The rationale was that some properties are essential to public functions, such as roads or even a city hospital, and there must be some way to deal with owners who refuse to sell.
But activist judges have redefined "public use" to mean almost anything, including unproven claims of economic benefit to the community. Increasingly, local politicians are ignoring constitutional limits.
Municipalities are seizing properties from small businesses to hand over to big businesses for private development. A small business that has existed successfully on a street corner for 40 years can be taken and replaced by a big shopping mall or office building that might end up in a massive bankruptcy a few years later.
The sharp increase in these "takings" of private property from one business to give to another is often traced to the "Poletown" decision by the Michigan Supreme Court in 1981. That ruling authorized the demolition of hundreds of businesses, more than 1,000 homes, and even several churches in a community made up of Polish immigrants near Detroit in order to build a new General Motors plant.
Phyllis Schlafly is a national leader of the pro-family movement, a nationally syndicated columnist and author of Feminist Fantasies.
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