Saturday, December 26, 2009

Use eminent domain to build public works, not help developers

Dear Editor [of the Times Ledger]:

An adverse court ruling in the Willets Point matter should not deter efforts at seeking to preserve the livelihood and families of the hundreds of workers who will be displaced by this outrageous give-away of private property for the benefit of private real estate interests (“Willets Point owners lose suit,” Flushing Times, Dec. 3).

If a student in any class from the sixth-grade through college was asked about eminent domain, I am sure there would be a uniform response that government has the right — indeed, the duty — to take private property for just compensation to accomplish a public purpose. Pressed to define “public purpose,” reference would be made to public works, like a government building, a roadway, public transportation facilities, bridges, etc.

When asked if it included taking private property to be turned over to a private, for-profit real estate developer, the answer would be no way. I am sure the general public would respond the same way.

In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court, in the Kelo v. City of New London case, ignoring the public’s decades-old understanding of eminent domain, ruled that a municipality — actually politicians more interested in fat cat real estate developers than the poor and middle class — could exercise eminent domain, take private property and turn it over to a private real estate developer on the dubious theory that it would increase the economic viability of the area and the little homeowner be damned.

Parenthetically, it should be noted that while the Kelo homeowners were forced to leave their homes, the projected development — notwithstanding the passage of many years — never came to pass and the land is now vacant.

Recently, the state Court of Appeals, in a 6-1 decision, supported the use of eminent domain in Bruce Ratner’s New Jersey Nets arena project in Brooklyn on the same dubious economic claim. A good deal of the project will be subsidized directly and indirectly by taxpayers. Many homeowners will be forced out of their homes, all for the benefit of a private real estate developer.

As a result of the Kelo case, 35 states enacted legislation upholding the public’s traditional understanding of eminent domain and prohibiting the taking of private property and turning it over to a private real estate developer. New York state was not one of those 35 states — not surprisingly, given the fact that the Brennan Center for Justice, a public interest center at the New York University School of Law, rated New York’s state Legislature the worst state Legislature in the nation.

I think the Willets Point people would be best served by a concerted grassroots effort at engaging all members of the state Legislature and exacting an agreement to enact legislation that will prohibit the kind of result that occurred in the Kelo and Ratner matters, under pain of which legislators will be opposed in any election in which they seek office.

Since the taking of private property is political and not economic, it should be opposed on a political basis. I have no doubt the public will embrace and support such action.

Benjamin M. Haber