by Greg Walcher, E&E Legal Senior Policy Fellow
As Appearing in The Daily Sentinel
Suzette Kelo bought what she thought was her dream house, a little pink cottage in Connecticut with a great view, where the Thames River flows into Long Island Sound. She lovingly restored the home, but her dream didn’t last. When a pharmaceutical plant was built nearby, the City of New London decided the residential section would generate a lot more tax revenue if occupied by larger and more expensive commercial buildings. So, the town council turned over its power of “eminent domain” to a private development company, all the homes in the neighborhood were condemned, the residents forced out, and their homes torn down or moved away.
The developers went broke and abandoned the project, so Suzette’s quaint neighborhood is now a parking lot. She and several neighbors, some of whom had lived there for generations, sued the city, which had used its right to condemn private property, not for public use, but to transfer ownership to a different private owner. In one of its most controversial decisions, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with the City, ruling that economic development (i.e. upgrading the value of a neighborhood) is a “public use” under the Fifth Amendment.
That was 12 years ago, and it sparked enough public outrage that 43 States have now strengthened protections for private property against local condemnation powers. The Fifth Amendment is an essential part of the Bill of Rights, ensuring among other things, “nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation.” The founders understood, of course, that sometimes private property stands in the way of public progress, such as when highways are built. The public good cannot be held hostage by one owner, whose refusal to sell might otherwise block needed transportation or other infrastructure projects. Thus, all governments have the right of “eminent domain” to handle such cases, and they must pay owners the fair market value of land thus taken for public use.