Eminent Domain Update

Limits to eminent domain use now unclear.

Jul 16, 2005

New London eminent domain case: Supreme Court decision document

The reference to the Hawaii Housing Authority case as a precedent for taking private land and passing directly to private individuals seems absurdly inappropriate. It was not an eminent domain case. The Hawaii state legislature passed a land reform act that forced big land holders (originating from Hawaiian kings days) to sell land to qualified lessees who have leased their land for generations. The complaint was over the constitutionality of the state law: Hawaii Housing Authority document

Overall, the court seems to have taken the city of New London on its word as to the the city's initiative in the plan, the city's desperate economic need, the detailed planning, and the expected public benefit. But was it really a city initiative or just a plan initiated by developers who obtained close support from city leaders?

While the court concludes there will be a public benefit, is that enough? Any destruction and reconstruction can be a public benefit, at least in terms of temporary construction jobs and expenditures. But shouldn't there also be a test of a need for that specific destruction?

What other development might New London have engaged in, which might have avoided eminent domain use---as well as be far less speculative? Phizer built a $300M research center next door without even asking for eminent domain use. Nothing impeded developers over the last couple of decades from buying this waterfront property piecemeal to build upscale condos, then shops, then a hotel, etc. Each such purchase in this choice waterfront, though middle class, neighborhood would have steadily and significantly increased the property values of the new and remaining houses---increasing taxes and satisfying the city's revenue problem. (It would also have increased the developers' total cost for the land. And there's the rub.)

In any case the court's decision is, self-statedly, specific to the New London case: "This Court's authority, however, extends only to determining whether the City's proposed condemnations are for a 'public use'". Other cities would be subject to the same strictures. Seems like I got it right a few weeks ago.