Monday, February 28, 2005

The People's Republic of Lincoln Wants Your Property

Even here in the Red States of the Great American Desert it's hard to keep the government out of people's pockets. This is bad enough when the confiscation occurs directly through taxation for government programs and projects. It's worse when the government uses the power of eminent domain to take the property of private citizens who don't wish to sell. Even more pernicious is the growing tendency to use eminent domain for private projects, as the city of Lincoln is now considering.

The right of a person to his property is fundamental to a free society. What is the point of the pursuit of happiness if it's only catch and release? Sadly, the courts have chipped away at property rights over the years. There is essentially no limit in a legal sense to the level of taxes that can be imposed on the citizens.

Eminent domain has long been seen as an essential tool for the Public Good, allowing the government to purchase private property for legitimate public uses: streets; schools; parks; etc. The vast potential for abuse has also been recognized as well, so courts have required a clear public purpose for the takings. "Fair compensation" has always been required, although what is the meaning of "fair price" when the owner is unwilling to sell? Gradually, the definition of "public use" has become so broad as to be all but meaningless. As Tycho wrote, the SCOTUS is presently reviewing a key case of emminent domain abuse.

Lincoln, apparently keen to get going before the practice is ruled unconstitutional, wants to take property so that a private developer can build a luxury hotel. The "public purpose?" Well, er, uhh, umm... it will creat jobs and tax revenue for the city. Yeah, that's it. That's our story and we're sticking to it.

The proposal is now up before the city council in a public hearing, which is televised tonight. There were quite a few articulate citizen-opponents of the use of eminent domain for the project. There was also no shortage of supporters of the project arguing that it could only be done with eminent domain. Essentially no one seems to oppose the project itself, if eminent domain is not included.

The mayor seems to be manuevering to get eminent domain in the project, but "only as a last resort." This suggests she doesn't have the votes to get it through straight up. Several speakers have bought that as a compromise, but others see it (as do we) as a fake compromise, as it would still be hanging over the head of the property owners.

The promised benefits seem to us to be Pie in the Sky, as there is no shortage of hotel space in the city at present.

Looking at the public statements of the council members, we don't think it will be close. The project will be approved, but without eminent domain authority. The developer has said the project is not practical without eminent domain, which begs the question of its true economic value.

UPDATE: At 1:45AM the council unanimously adopted the amendment to remove eminent domain authority from the project. While it could theoretically be added later, the votes just aren't there. The people have spoken, and the city has heard them.

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