Sunday, July 03, 2005

Property Snatching: An Ancient Government Practice

The country received a group lesson last week on eminent domain, the practice of government taking property from private land owners for public use. In review, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the town of New London, Connecticut, to condemn private homes for private developers to demolish an older community and redevelop it into a multi-use project, to include business, shopping and upscale housing, primarily for economic reasons.

It was funny, in a dark humorous kind of way, to read the opening paragraphs of the nation's newspapers and websites the day after this ruling. Reporters denoted how the high court has now given localities new police power to take land. One in particular was from the Associated Press: "Cities may bulldoze people's homes to make way for shopping malls or other private development, a divided Supreme Court ruled Thursday, giving local governments broad power to seize private property to generate tax revenue."

But the U.S. supreme court didn't "give" localities this right, it's been in the constitution from day one. Eminent domain has always allowed this type of taking. This was just the first individual case to make it to the Supreme Court.

If you ever decide to get your real estate license, you'll learn about this practice about halfway through the course. "Modern Real Estate Practice," the premiere real estate licensing text book published by Dearborn Real Estate Education, discusses eminent domain in its definition of "taking."

"Taking comes from the takings clause of the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The clause reads, 'nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation,'" the book states in chapter 19, "Land Use Controls and Property Development."

While we all have a constitutional right to property ownership, the government also has a constitutional right to take that property. We've all signed up for it, whether we knew about it or not … even in a free society, the government at times must have the ability to make decisions for the greater good. The real question comes down, then -- is this ruling really for the greater good?

When I first heard of the New London case, my stomach cringed, just like it always does when I hear of the government taking land for any reason. While it's legal and probably in some cerebral way, the right thing to do, it just doesn't seem right. The ultimate land grab for "the greater good," was demonstrated in the recent movie release "Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy," where a federation of planets condemns planet earth and blows it to smithereens for the expansion of a galactic highway. The whole Earth population gets about a 30-second notice before the space bulldozers come in to clear the path to new development.

Every time you read about the taking of land, it's not a good scenario. The earliest one I can recall was 874 BC when Samaritan King Ahab took a vineyard next to his palace. He wanted the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite (I Kings 21). But Naboth wouldn't sell it to the king because the land had been in the family for so long. Naboth, being the spoiled man he was, got depressed, wouldn't eat his supper and went to bed to pout.

Enter Jezebel. Ahab's wife, Jezebel, told Ahab not to worry, she would deliver the vineyard -- "Do you now govern Israel? Arise, and eat bread, and let your heart be cheerful; I will give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite." (21:7)

She commenced to plot a false accusation of blasphemy against Naboth, leading to his execution by stoning. The land was left for taking -- which Ahab took. And thus, one of the first recorded incidents of eminent domain.

Thankfully, the taking of land today is not as drastic as this. In modern days, we weigh out the pluses and minuses of taking land and it's usually actually for the greater good of the community, however, the emotions will always run high when a private owner is told, "your house is now my house."

No comments: