Land Snatching

Eminent domain? In Florida, its use is common.

click to enlarge DITTO? Harvey Korman as Hedley Lamarr. - Wayne Garcia
Wayne Garcia
DITTO? Harvey Korman as Hedley Lamarr.

Hedley Lamarr (that's Hedley, not Hedy) knows the power of eminent domain.

The slimy attorney general in Blazing Saddles, Mel Brooks' politically incorrect 1974 Western spoof, Lamarr (Harvey Korman) is obsessed with taking over a frontier town's property to enable the railroad to bypass a patch of quicksand.

So he turns to his law books.

"There might be legal precedent!" Lamarr crows as he leafs through pages of court rulings. "Of course, Landsnatching … land, land, land, see Snatch."

Lamarr's kindred spirits sit on today's U.S. Supreme Court, which decided in its last set of rulings for the year to make eminent domain an even stronger - and some would argue more onerous - mechanism for governments to take your property for private developers' use.

Its ruling in Kelo v. City of New London has upset liberals and conservatives alike, including private property rights advocates, anti-corporate warriors and big government opponents.

Here in Tampa Bay, Terry Gannon worries that he'll have his own Hedley Lamarrs to deal with. Gannon is head of the St. Pete Beach Citizens for Responsible Growth, which is fighting city redevelopment plans that - under state law - could now use eminent domain.

City Council members want "to allow private enterprises to take anybody's home and there's nothing they can do about it," said Gannon, who was mayor of St. Pete Beach in the early '90s.

Last week, the St. Pete Beach City Council declared the north end of the city a community redevelopment area, allowing the council to take over the land through eminent domain if it chooses. Although city leaders have repeatedly said they won't, Gannon and his fellow opponents believe the council will invoke the ability to take private homes.

"I would like to hope it doesn't," Gannon said, "but…"

The St. Pete Beach example shows that, in Florida, the Supreme Court's Kelo decision is largely unnecessary; local governments already have the power to turn private property over to developers.

The Kelo case grew out of a redevelopment effort in the Connecticut city of New London, which wanted to turn around a depressed neighborhood by allowing a private nonprofit developer to build a retail and office riverwalk project. Many private homeowners in the redevelopment area sold their land willingly, but a handful held out and blocked the project. The city wanted to use eminent domain lawsuits to take their 15 parcels of land.

The court's majority said using eminent domain for private projects was appropriate as long as the project is "rationally related to a conceivable public purpose."

Opponents howled.

"Totalitarian governments with a socialist bent are experts when it comes to trampling on individual rights in the name of benefiting the masses," wrote Matt Warner of the free-market, libertarian James Madison Institute in Tallahassee in an op-ed piece.

At issue was a little-known provision of the Fifth Amendment that allows governments to take private property (with adequate compensation) only if it serves a "public purpose." What constitutes a public purpose, however, is unclear.

Eminent domain is most often used for taking land for roads and sewer projects and the like. In the past decade in Florida, eminent domain has even been used for environmental protection, to purchase beachfront property slated for redevelopment in the Panhandle. It also allowed the state to buy land from a proposed cement plant that would have threatened the pristine, spring-fed Ichetucknee River in North Florida.

Its history in the service of urban redevelopment is much more controversial. Eminent domain was used in St. Petersburg in the 1990s to gather land for the planned Bay Plaza development. That plan failed, but the land eventually was sold to create the privately held BayWalk. In Tampa, city leaders have used eminent domain to buy commercial properties for parking garages that benefited the Centro Ybor development. Hillsborough County's transit agency used eminent domain to take land for a transportation hub across the street from the Marriott Waterside downtown, enhancing the value of that project. Tampa's failed Civitas redevelopment would have used it, also.

Florida is among the tougher states in the nation in requiring local governments to jump through hoops before taking private land for redevelopment projects headed by private developers. Government must declare an area "blighted" and find that it meets at least two of 14 criteria, one of which is having a high crime rate.

Meeting those requirements, however, is not a steep hurdle, leading some opponents of the decision to bemoan the state of land seizures even before Kelo. Experts argue that almost any area in Florida could meet two of the 14 requirements.

"I think this already has been a problem," said Warner, of the James Madison Institute. Given that developers have already been able to take private land in Florida, "we don't necessarily expect to see the floodgates opened and lots of these kinds of things coming forward" simply because of the Supreme Court decision.

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