(Note: Following is an edited version of an article that first appeared in the Summer 2006 issue of "Impact.")
Kelo v. New London is a rare thing: a U.S. Supreme Court decision almost universally reviled. The court’s ruling that the government can, by providing “just compensation,” forcibly transfer citizens’ land to businesses that will pay more taxes has reawakened Americans’ appreciation of property rights. Expanding that appreciation — and informing it — was the goal of the Mackinac Center’s inaugural property rights seminar, held May 17 in East Lansing.
More than 70 people gathered for the event, including Michigan Supreme Court Justices Clifford W. Taylor and Robert P. Young Jr., state Rep. Leon Drolet, legislative staff members, city officials and community members. The forum featured a panel of four experts, and the first of these to speak was Scott Bullock, the lawyer who represented Susette Kelo. Bullock, a senior attorney at the Washington-based Institute for Justice, made it clear that the Kelo decision has emboldened governments to use eminent domain to rearrange the landscape at will. In Freeport, Texas, the city is seeking to replace seafood businesses with a marina; elsewhere, cities are planning to replace houses with condominiums and shopping malls. Mackinac Center Senior Legal Analyst Patrick J. Wright spoke next, focusing on Michigan. Wright observed that although the state Supreme Court has ruled that Kelo-style takings are unconstitutional in Michigan, state and local governments can accomplish the same ends by applying vague definitions of “blight” to entire neighborhoods and using eminent domain to redistribute the land to developers.
The reality of this threat was underscored by Nancy Kurdziel, president of Prime Housing Group Inc., a family business fighting a proposed “blight” taking by the city of East Lansing. Kurdziel compellingly described how several years ago the city decided to change its business profile and labeled as “blighted” a respectable part of town that included well-maintained Prime Housing properties. “We have invested our pocketbooks and our lives into this business,” said Kurdziel. “Yet we have spent the last six years defending that property because the city decided they have other ideas for it.”
Mackinac Center Senior Environmental Policy Analyst Russ Harding then addressed a final form of eminent domain: “regulatory takings,” in which land-use restrictions or other regulations diminish a property’s value. “Supposedly,” Harding observed, “environmental or land-use restrictions provide a benefit to the public in general. The problem is that those restrictions are imposed on private property, and the cost of those benefits entirely are borne by individuals, the landowners.” The U.S. and Michigan constitutions suggest that the landowners should be compensated for their loss, but the courts have rarely awarded damages.
Citizens do have recourse. Wright noted that abusive “blight” takings could be limited by requiring the government to demonstrate the existence of blight on a parcel-by-parcel basis — a requirement that is part of a proposal being submitted to Michigan voters this November. Harding observed that a successful Oregon ballot initiative recently mandated that the state’s governments pay compensation for regulatory takings.
Judging by the audience’s reaction, the seminar was a resounding success. Rep. Drolet asked for 300 copies of “Restoring Our Heritage of Property Rights,” a Mackinac Center booklet provided to everyone who attended. The same day, MIRS Capitol Capsule published an article on the symposium.
The Center has already held a second property rights forum in Bay City, and plans are on the drawing board for similar seminars in Traverse City, Oakland County, and Western Michigan. The new meetings will come none too soon. As Kurdziel warned: “If they can do it to us, then they can do it to you. It’s time to protect our property rights now.”