American Voters Protect Their Property Rights

Eminent domain measures pass in nine states

The Supreme Court’s controversial 2005 eminent-domain decision, which gave the government a green light to take private property and turn it over to developers for “economic development,” still has voters riled up. Last week, voters in nine states, including Florida, passed initiatives protecting their property rights and limiting the government’s power to take their homes and businesses.

Most Americans were rightfully incensed that government could arbitrarily evict people from their homes, businesses and churches simply because it could generate more tax revenue if the properties were turned into condos, offices and hotels. Eminent domain is supposed to be used only used to acquire private land for clearly defined public uses – such as roads and schools-but the court’s Kelo decision opened the door for government to condemn property for almost anything that it could argue had a public “benefit.”

In the year since the Supreme Court’s ruling, local governments have threatened eminent domain or condemned more than 5,500 homes, businesses and churches so that they could be transferred to another private owner, according to the Institute for Justice.

Elected officials in the predominantly black city of Riviera Beach, for example, plan to condemn the homes and businesses of more than 5,000 residents to build an 800-acre private redevelopment.

And voters are fighting back. On Nov. 7, more than 80 percent of voters in Georgia, Michigan, New Hampshire and South Carolina approved constitutional amendments that forbid use of eminent domain for economic development. Arizona, Florida, Oregon, Nevada and North Dakota also passed eminent-domain limits.

In all, 35 states have now curbed eminent domain abuse since the Kelo ruling.

The next battleground is the issue of regulatory takings. What should happen when the government passes a new law or changes zoning laws in ways that destroy the value of your home or land?

These “regulatory takings” have resulted in huge financial losses, or even total ruin for homeowners as aggressive land-use regulations and anti-sprawl measures ban landowners from using their property in the ways they intended.

In 2004, Oregon voters required the government to either financially compensate homeowners for their losses or to waive the zoning regulations for that property. On Nov. 7, Arizona passed a similar “Kelo-Plus” law combining eminent domain and regulatory takings reform.

Regulatory takings reform faces higher hurdles to voter appeal than pure eminent-domain limits. Environmental groups who wouldn’t dare oppose eminent-domain laws poured millions into campaigns against the regulatory takings bills. In California, farmers and rural land owners in the Central Valley supported the measure only to see urban dwellers in San Francisco and Los Angeles buy into claims that the government would go bankrupt if it had to pay damages to homeowners whenever it passed a law destroying their land values.

Overall, it’s obvious that since the Supreme Court’s dubious eminent domain ruling that property rights are now ingrained into our national consciousness. Americans understand that the government is there to protect their property, not to take it away. And they’ve sent that message loud and clear.

Leonard Gilroy is a certified planner and policy analyst at the Reason Foundation. An archive of his work is here. Reason’s eminent domain research and commentary is here.