Eminent Extortion

  In June 2005, the property rights case of Kelo v. New London dramatically altered the legislative landscape of the U.S. The Supreme Court ruled that under the law of eminent domain, private property can now be taken from Americans, not only for public purposes--i.e. roads, schools, etc.--but also for corporate use. In other words, your town could theoretically take your house and put a Wal-Mart in its place.

You think it can't happen to you? Think again.

From June 2005 to June 2006, the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm, counted 5,700 cases nationwide of property seizure for private development. And there is no end in sight. In the contrary, land-hungry developers and tax-hungry cities have recently been driving the eminent farce to ever new heights.

While eminent domain abuses have sprouted like mushrooms across the country, the East Coast--and especially New Jersey--seems to be home to the most notorious land grabbers.

One of the most reported cases has been that of Vera Coking, an elderly widow from Atlantic City, NJ, who almost lost her house to Donald Trump so he could build a limousine parking lot for his customers.

Another is the City of Long Branch, NJ, which is planning to demolish a charming and well-kept neighborhood with middle-class beachfront homes to make way for upscale condominiums. The official reason for doing so: urban blight.

"[The] definition of 'blight' has become so broad and unprincipled that governments regularly target perfectly fine homes in ordinary neighborhoods for the wrecking ball," complains the Institute for Justice. "Nice homes with spectacular oceanfront views in vibrant neighborhoods can be condemned for reasons like 'diversity of ownership,' meaning that each home is owned by a separate family--something that should be a point of pride for Americans rather than an excuse to take what rightfully belongs to a homeowner. If owning your own home means your house is blighted, whose house isn't blighted?"

The most shocking recent incident, however, is what can only be called "eminent extortion."

Entrepreneur Bart Didden and his business partner were planning to build a CVS drugstore on their property in Port Chester, NY. Developer Greg Wasser, backed by the town and interested in building a Walgreen's in the same place, approached Didden and demanded $800,000 or an unearned 50% stake in the CVS development to make him "go away"--otherwise he would tell the town elders to seize Didden's property. When Didden refused, the Village of Port Chester condemned his land for private use the very next day. The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the decision.

Didden, who says it took him years of hard work to buy the property and pay off the mortgage, states that his case "is about payoffs and government run amok."

And Dana Berliner, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, who represents Didden in the case, commented: "Essentially, the courts have ruled Kelo turns a redevelopment zone into a Constitution-free zone for property owners confronted by politically connected developers. We want the Supreme Court to rule that the Constitution does not permit governments or citizens acting on their behalf to demand money in exchange for allowing property owners to keep what is rightfully theirs. The very fact that we have to ask the highest court in the land for such a ruling underscores how precarious and threatening things are getting for ordinary American landowners."

A struggle without happy ending: according to latest news, the Supreme Court plainly refused to hear Didden's case.

With outrages like this, we wonder how long it will take until private homeowners march to Washington with torches and pitchforks. Hopefully not too long.

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Posted 01-23-2007 5:02 PM by Shannara Johnson
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