Susette Kelo stood resolute in fighting New London, Conn., politicians who were anxious to take her house to make way for grandiose development plans involving the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer. She fought all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where she lost a controversial split decision in 2005. Four years later, the formerly quiet and well-maintained Ft. Trumbull neighborhood that Kelo called home sits empty and neglected. And it will remain so for the foreseeable future after Pfizer recently announced it is abandoning New London, Conn., for nearby Groton, Conn., as part of a merger with drug maker Wyeth.
Even though she ultimately lost her house, Kelo's valiant stand against government trampling of her private property rights was not in vain. Her Supreme Court case alerted property owners around the country that their private property was no longer safe from government confiscation. The Supreme Court crossed a line that most Americans were not comfortable with when it ruled that it was permissible for government to take property from one private owner and give it to another private party for the sole purpose of economic development. Fortunately, the Kelo decision paved the way for states to enact more stringent protections from government taking of private property for economic purposes. To date, a majority of the states, including Michigan, have enacted statutes or constitutional protections that make it more difficult for government to take an individual's private property.
Two important lessons can be learned from Kelo's experience. First, property owners cannot assume their constitutional private property rights are protected by law. Second, government planners usually get it wrong. Central planning by government officials, whether at the federal, state or local level, seldom delivers what it promises. No matter the beneficent intentions of government planners, private property rights should never be sacrificed to realize government planners' utopian dreams. Just ask Susette Kelo.