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Wednesday, May 24, 2006 10:46 pm

A first step

Legislature passes measure to curb eminent-domain abuse

The U.S. Supreme Court’s central ruling in Suzette Kelo et al. v. City of New London has created a firestorm of controversy and outrage in state legislatures and among property owners across the nation since it was handed down last fall. The court, in effect, endorsed what has become a dangerous trend wherein governments, mostly municipalities, have invoked the doctrine of eminent domain to condemn, then raze, and then sell private property to commercial developers. Once reserved for public-works projects clearly in the public interest, such as roads and sewers, eminent domain is now being used to seize and then convert homes and businesses into more profitable and taxable enterprises, such as strip malls and sports complexes. The 5-4 Kelo decision has, according to Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, set a dangerous precedent. In her dissent, she wrote: “Nothing is to prevent the State from replacing any Motel 6 with a Ritz-Carlton, any home with a shopping center, or any farm with a factory.” Fortunately, a number of states have since taken preemptive measures to thwart eminent-domain abuses by strictly limiting its implementation. In turn, legislators in Illinois have proposed several statutory remedies that address separate issues regarding powers of eminent domain. Of those, one noteworthy proposal has emerged. In Illinois, as in other states, local governments have been allowed to exercise their right of eminent domain with impunity, by merely designating a home or business “blighted.” If the proprietors disagree, it has hitherto been their legal responsibility to prove otherwise in a court of law. As one can imagine, those living in an area slated for “redevelopment” are rarely able to afford the legal costs of fighting City Hall. Senate Bill 3086, which became law on May 3, seeks to change that. In effect, the law now places that onus on local and county governments rather than on property owners. As condemning authorities, they “must demonstrate and prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the property is blighted property.” The measure is a needed, if modest, reform. Introduced by Sen. Susan Garrett, D-Lake Forest, it cruised through the Senate on a 44-2 vote. “This bill will even the playing field for the average homeowner and give them some legal protections that [they] don’t have under current state law,” said co-sponsor Sen. Dan Cronin, D-Elmhurst, after it passed the Senate. “I know this is a controversial issue, but I’m proud to say that this bill is supported by numerous interests and organizations throughout the state and has bipartisan support in the Legislature. We need to pass a solid eminent-domain bill in Illinois, and I’m convinced this is that bill.” It’s unlikely that SB 3086 will curb eminent-domain abuse in Illinois once and for all. Says Steven Anderson of the Beltway-based Institute for Justice, “On the scale of reforms, that barely registers.” Even so, on reaching the Illinois House, SB 3086 met stiff resistance on the floor and in the lobby. House Speaker Mike Madigan pledged initially only to study the measure, but eventually, on April 19, he called it to a vote, and it promptly passed 86-6. Several special-interest groups condemned it. Roger Huebner, general counsel for the Illinois Municipal League, argued that the bill simply increases the value of what local government must pay to get rid of blight. In fact, what the bill does is increase the value of what a local government must pay to trample its citizens’ Fifth Amendment rights. The U.S. Constitution reads, “Nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” What is just compensation for a woman whose home is taken from her so that a city may convert her property into a parking garage for a state-sponsored baseball stadium? What is just compensation for Bill Yarger and Alec Wade, who were threatened with having their properties seized not because they were a blight on the community but so Normal township could raze the property and hand it over to a bank, which could then relocate from its original location and make way for a Marriott? There is a conspicuous consensus between wealthy interests and local governments on this issue. People are being shaken out of their homes by their own governments to make way for commercial development. But Anderson points out: “We know that development occurs every day without eminent domain. Development occurs as a result of private negotiation, not government interference.” Nevertheless, private negotiations are taking place between corporate interests and city planners without the consent of the governed — and until the General Assembly passes meaningful reforms well beyond SB 3086, they are complicit in this behavior.
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