Civil Liberties

Why Progressives Should Support Eminent Domain Reform


As Virginia moves toward eminent domain reform, Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist A. Barton Hinkle explains why progressives should applaud:

You don't hear about many eminent-domain cases pitting scrappy local governments against Lockheed Martin, Exxon or Proctor & Gamble. To the contrary, recent cases have involved:

•Roanoke seizing a building that belonged to the owners of a mom-and-pop flooring company so it could turn the property over to Carilion, a billion-dollar health-care corporation.

•Norfolk trying to seize the property of Central Radio so it could hand the land over to Old Dominion University.

•VDOT trying to cheat a small day-care owner out of just compensation — and spending more on lawyers to fight the case than it would have shelled out by paying her original asking price.

In these and other cases, those rooting for the underdog share common cause with property-rights activists….

Abuses such as those outlined above represent cases of Robin Hood in reverse. Like the original Kelo v. New London case that gave local governments a green light to steal, they take from the poor and give to the rich. Condemnations rarely if ever involve the seizure of fancy McMansions in tony gated communities. Rather, they run roughshod over working-class neighborhoods.

As Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote in her Kelo dissent, "the fallout from this decision will not be random. The beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms." Indeed, permitting the use of eminent domain for economic development makes that not only possible, but necessary . There would be no point in seizing a building from Verizon and giving it to a hair salon. Eminent domain for the purpose of economic development always — always — goes in the other direction.

He offers a couple other reasons as well. I noted Hinkle's take on the Roanoke case last year. In a 2005 column, I wondered how The New York Times could applaud Kelo. Ilya Somin explored "The Limits of Anti-Kelo Legislation" in a 2007 Reason article.