“My name is Susette Kelo, and the government stole my home.”
Those chilling words came from famed Connecticut homeowner Susette Kelo at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy’s Feb. 10 Issues and Ideas Forum in East Lansing. Kelo’s battle to keep her property from being seized by her city government and turned over to private developers led to a controversial 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision. That 5-4 decision favored the government on grounds that the private developer would help the city by paying more taxes than Kelo.
Kelo says despite the high court’s ruling, her story is far from over: “I think until … either the United States Supreme Court reverses the decision or each state makes it so eminent domain is used truly for a public purpose, a bridge or a road, … they’re going to continue to see more.”
East Lansing property owner Nancy Kurdziel, who attended the event, agrees. She has had to fend off city planners who have twice declared that her well-tended apartment buildings on the Michigan State University campus lie in a “blighted” area — a status that if applied to her individual properties, could allow the city to seize the buildings through eminent domain. This is a real concern, given that the city has explored redeveloping the area.
Now Kurdziel is fighting on a second front. The city has a federal grant to look for ground pollution in her area, which could get it declared a so-called “brownfield.” Kurdziel says, “So to have the city of East Lansing, who doesn’t own the property, come in and obtain federal money to study the area for potential contamination, so they can have their hand-picked developer redevelop this area, is just highly inappropriate, and it totally disregards the rights of the current people that own the property.”
Kurdziel took forum attendees on a bus tour of the city’s supposedly blighted 32-acre East Village area. Ironically, she pointed out several vacant city-owned buildings in various stages of decay that the city does not consider blighted, even as the city implies her newly renovated apartment buildings, a new McDonald’s restaurant and even a fraternity house are. She says, “It’s just that we’re ‘blighted’ because they think the river’s wasted on the students, so they want to see it be something else.”
Kelo says students in East Lansing should also stand up for property rights: “The college kids or young people actually have a lot of power in this town and can … fight, get involved and stop it. I mean, if you don’t stop eminent domain, they’re just going to keep taking and taking and taking everything they can get their hands on.”
Kurdziel noted that Kelo’s determination in New London, Conn., while unsuccessful in the Supreme Court, has led to victories elsewhere. That includes Michigan, where the 2006 passage of Proposal 4 aims to prohibit Kelo-like takings and makes any taking in East Lansing harder for the city to achieve. Kurdziel observes: “We now have constitutional protections that Connecticut still doesn’t have. So yeah, I guess Susette lost, but in the end, we won, and we are eternally grateful — eternally grateful for (her) fight. So, bravo!”
Kelo’s story is now chronicled in a book called “Little Pink House,” written by journalist Jeff Benedict. He joined Kelo at the forum and helped describe her battle. To watch the Mackinac Center’s Issues and Ideas Forum in its entirety, click >here.