P.O. Box 75, Stony Creek, New York 12878 - 518/696-5748
The right to own private property is a fundamental American freedom that
guarantees personal liberty and promotes economic prosperity.
Greetings and best wishes for the success of all your efforts to defend private property rights and freedom.
Opportunity still abounds to reform eminent domain law, if
we seize the openingthe outpouring of citizen angerthat
was precipitated by the U.S. Supreme Court's outrageous
We need to absolutely prohibit the use of eminent domain to take private homes and businesses for private economic developmentno exceptions. Whatever way the use of eminent domain is imposed, whether to clear "blight," or prepare for urban renewal, or to increase tax revenues, the imposition of the sovereign power of government to condemn private property to transfer the property to another private party must be stopped.
The power of eminent domain should be solely for genuine public uses, not for any amorphous public purposes, such as to clear less desirable neighborhoods to make way for more upscale ownership. The ownership that results from eminent domain should be solely government ownership unless the ownership is for classical public uses such as railroads, bridges, dams, highways, utilities, and the like.
Without this protection written into law, people will never be secure in their homes and businesses. No definition of "blight" to excuse the use of eminent domain to transfer property to private interests can adequately protect private property ownership.
Some would define "blight" in terms of a selected number of building code violations. This might seem reasonable to a person who has no experience with building code enforcement. But building code enforcement is consistent only in one respect: its inconsistency and bias. In fact, landlords in Rochester, New York, reported that drug raids were used to give entry to officials who ripped out electrical outlets, smashed walls, and broke windows so that building code officials could enter and cite the owner with enough code violations to justify condemning the property as a threat to public health and safety.
That practice points to the fact that local government officials separately possess the police power to tear down buildings that present a threat to public health and safety, without using the eminent domain power. Therefore the use of eminent domain for "blight" removal is invariably an enlargement of an order of magnitude beyond that needed to protect the public health and safety.
Those who would like to allow the government to use eminent domain to remove "blighted" properties also propose that a showing of taxes in arrears should be justification for the use of eminent domain. This proposal is even more specious than that to keep score of building violations. Under the various state laws, local government jurisdictions already have the power to seize and auction properties where the owners have allowed the real estate taxes to fall into arrears for two or three years, depending on the specific rules.
Using scoring systems involving these and other definitions of "blight," entire neighborhoods would be leveled for transfer to private developers for urban renewal, bringing us back to the tyrannical meanness of New London's demolition of the Fort Trumbull neighborhood, or the far worse horrors of the displacement of over 20,000 residents in Washington, D.C., during the 1950s, also justified by the U.S. Supreme Court, in the Berman v. Parker decision.
Any proposed definitions of "blight" are merely methods whereby the widespread citizen demand that private property be protected from eminent domain is circumvented.
In fact, the establishment of clear definitions for "blight" would actually ease the process of eminent domain, considering that the municipality would have the upper hand in precipitating the "qualification" of the individual private properties, and hence the neighborhood, for eminent domain for private redevelopment, and each individual property owner would be in a difficult defensive position.
But a concerned citizen might argue that holding to an uncompromising position means that we'll get nowhere. Isn't "anything" better than the present situation, where, in many jurisdictions, the government has the Supreme Court's carte blanche to freely condemn private property for private redevelopment?
No, a fiction of reform is not better than no reform at all, because it pulls the wool over people's eyes and wastes the opportunity of the moment to gather them together to organize for change.
Furthermore, there are landmark bills that are less than fundamental reform to the definition of "public use" and may be passable in state legislatures with good leadership and citizen support.
For instance, the New York State Legislature broke a logjam and passed a new eminent domain notification law two years ago, ending the most notorious built-in abuse of eminent domain in the nation.
Important current proposals in the New York Legislature would
improve the eminent domain process to make it fairer to the property
owner, for instance by requiring longer notification time, increasing
citizen participation, and mandating more realistic compensation.
And, focusing on the long term, two proposals would establish
a temporary commission on eminent domain that would hold public
hearings throughout the state to gather information about problems
and make recommendations for reform.
Indeed, in the spirit in which these eminent domain reform bills have been drafted, excellent bills have been drafted in the New York Legislature that would define "public use," creating air-tight protection for private property owners either by passing legislation or by going through the full constitutional amendment procedure.
It is disheartening to contemplate the cruelty and injustice that has been perpetrated through the use of eminent domain to take the homes and businesses of countless individuals in thousands of minority and low income neighborhoods, just to "improve" the municipality. But we do have the power to reverse this wave of disregard for civil rights.
Your help is greatly neededyour letters and visits to your city council and to your representatives in the State Legislature, your letters to the editor, and, as you know is so deeply appreciated, your contributions to the Property Rights Foundation of America.
Please keep me posted with your local news and information about your efforts for justice.