Taking Liberties

In 2005, the Supreme Court backed the right of New London,
Connecticut, to force the condemnation and sale of seven homes in
order to make room for a 100-acre Pfizer pharmaceutical
manufacturing plant. By siding with big business over longtime
residents, the ruling in Kelo v. New London inspired a
widespread backlash against eminent domain; even staunch advocates
of developing the public sphere came to question the decision’s

Despite the media storm engendered by the case, few are aware of
a campaign to subvert land-use regulations by piggy-backing on
eminent domain’s recent bad press. In
High Country News, Ray Ring
investigates the libertarian effort to minimize government
control over private property, beginning with a look at
ground-level campaigner Eric Dondero. An ‘immediately likable’
guy, Dondero gathers signatures full time for a petition he
tells locals will ‘keep that new eminent domain law from coming
to Montana and taking our homes away.’ That Dondero actually
lives in Texas is beside the point.

Ring argues that despite public outcry over the Kelo
case, eminent domain is more frequently used in positive ways.
‘Governments at all levels invoke eminent domain on occasion to
condemn property and force the owners to accept a buyout to make
room for new roads, electricity lines, urban renewal, and other
projects that benefit the public,’ he writes.

The practical implications of Dondero’s petition go far beyond
restricting eminent domain. For decades libertarian property-rights
advocates have been pushing legislation that would force the
government to reimburse citizens for ‘regulatory takings’ —
hypothetical losses resulting from development limits and
regulations like zoning. They claim that such regulations reduce
property value, thereby violating the Fifth Amendment injunction
against taking private property for public use ‘without just
compensation.’ But, Ring argues, supporters of the cause don’t
actually expect to be compensated for regulatory takings; they
expect that given the choice between a payout and waiving
regulations, the government will choose to waive, allowing land
owners to develop however they see fit.

Libertarians succeeded in persuading Oregon voters to pass
regulatory takings legislation in 2004. Now all kinds of changes
are in the works, from bigger billboards in Portland to a lily farm
going trailer park, much to the dismay of its neighbors. Supporters
of the measure are looking to export similar laws to six other
Western states: Montana, Idaho, Washington, Arizona, Nevada, and
California. Ring writes that the campaign is organized and well
funded, but thus far has remained under the radar enough to prevent
the formation of an oppositional front. — Suzanne

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Taking Liberties

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