Speechless on eminent domain

I’m not familiar with the laws on eminent domain in Washington State, but an article in the New York Times about new laws to limit eminent domain struck me as interesting. Eminent domain law means a lot to folks involved in real estate as it is often used to dramatically overhaul neighborhoods. It is almost unquestionable that it is a necessary evil, but the specific rules and regulations around it can get into sticky issues like declaring an area “blighted” and condemning low income housing.

The outcry has given heart to property-rights advocates. “We lost the Supreme Court case, but we’re ultimately going to win in changing the way that eminent domain is going to be used in this country,” said Dana Berliner, a senior attorney for the Institute for Justice, the most prominent advocacy group.

Eminent domain is important, though:

But around the country, developers and city officials say weakening or destroying the power to condemn property will seriously undermine efforts to rehabilitate decaying cities and might even hinder the rebuilding of New Orleans. Without eminent domain, the Inner Harbor, which played an essential role in Baltimore’s success in building its tourist industry, could not have been redeveloped, said Ralph S. Tyler, the city solicitor.

If Washington doesn’t act to justify or tweak the eminent domain process, I’d put decent odds on a Tim Eyman-backed initiative to restrict eminent domain law. Ohio is ahead of the game:

In a more cautious vein, Ohio has effectively denied state funding for one year to private projects in nonblighted areas that involve condemnation. The state also created a bipartisan task force to study the issue. “Ohio is saying, ‘We need some breathing space,’ ” Mr. Morandi, of the National Conference of State Legislatures, said.

It’s really too bad that most state governments don’t follow this cautious approach instead of reacting once a situation goes bad.

I suggest consulting David Pogue’s How to Be a Curmudgeon on the Internet for suggestions on how to comment on posts. The comments at Rain City Guide have been far too civil and substantial.


4 thoughts on “Speechless on eminent domain

  1. Hi Galen,

    In Seattle this has been a hot topic in recent times. Eminent Domain is generally intended for public and not private reasons, like the need to widen a highway. Seattle has, at times in the past, used it for pseudo-public/private purposes like building a football stadium, and the laws have recently been revised here to “fix” that problem.

    I don’t have time at the moment to give the actual details as they apply locally, but after I check the comments on my articles and get some work done today, I will read your full article and respond more completely.

    While the taking of your property becomes immediately “imminent” if the doctrine of Eminent Domain is applied, Eminent is used to define the ” all powerful” province of those empowered to apply it, as in “Your Eminency” (the Pope/Ceasar, et al).


  2. Fortunately, Washington State’s Constition is more restrictive on this isssue.

    In June 2005, Attorney General Rob McKenna issued a statement regarding Kelo v New London, Connecticut stating that “The Washington State Constitution prohibits the use of the power of eminent domain to condemn private property for private use and reserves to the judiciary the role in determining what constitutes a public use.”

    Press release available at: http://atg.wa.gov/releases/rel_EminentDomain_062405.html

  3. Weren’t those “monorail properites”, now on the auction block for $62,000,000.00, originally picked up via the eminent domain process? Now the original owners have no priority in getting them back. What happens when they take your property under eminent domain, and then the project turns out not to be imminent, like the monorail?

  4. Ardell, thanks for the backup and a great example – the issue here is not “for private use” – it’s that private and public use is often highly related. For instance, the stadiums really are for private use (they’re about as public as Walmart in that lots of people pay to go to them), but they fall under public domain because we think they make the city a better place. The monorail was for public use, now the property is for private use. Other situations are even tougher to classify as clearly private or public.

    Under this scenario, would it be private use (and not an overwhelming public gain) to condemn any private properties on the waterfront of south downtown if the city ever gets around to building a fantastic mixed use neighborhood there? I certainly hope not. I’m not sure a blanket statement from Mr. McKenna is going to settle eminent domain battles in this state, but I also don’t think anyone is going to try to employ anything but the steadiest eminent domain applications in the next few years.

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