In June 2005, the United States Supreme Court issued its now infamous decision in Kelo v. City of New London. That decision made eminent domain and condemnation household terms (imagine my shock at hearing my previously unknown, niche area of practice discussed in normal, day-to-day conversations). The decision sparked tremendous controversy, as the Court ruled that the City of New London, Connecticut could condemn properties for redevelopment purposes for purely economic reasons.
In other words, the City did not even pretend that it was acting to eliminate blight (the typical justification for condemnation for redevelopment purposes). Instead, the City proclaimed that the new development would generate more tax revenues than the existing development (largely, single-family homes), and that the increased tax revenue was, in and of itself, a "public use" justifying the takings. The Supreme Court agreed.
What followed around the country was a wave of eminent domain reform, designed to protect against the "evil" that Kelo allowed. Most reformers never bothered to realize that what happened in Kelo was already illegal in most states, including California. Specifically, even before Kelo, California law prohibited the condemnation of property for redevelopment purposes unless the property was blighted.
Now, four years later, many states have enacted at least some form of Eminent Domain reform; California has passed several moderate reforms that have narrowed somewhat condemnation for redevelopment, and that have added some procedural protections for property owners. In 2008, California voters approved Proposition 99, the more moderate of two proposed eminent domain initiatives.
And as for Susette Kelo and her famous pink house? She moved across the Thames River to Groton, and her house was moved about two miles for preservation.
And the economic boom the massive redevelopment project would create? It hasn't happened. Though some of the redevelopment area has been re-built, much of it lies as an abandoned wasteland, with no immediate plans to build anything.
Associated Press writer Katie Nelson describes the area in her October 4 article "EMINENT DOMAIN: Poetic justice, or sour economy?":
Weeds, glass, bricks, pieces of pipe and shingle splinters have replaced the knot of aging homes at the site of the nation's most notorious eminent domain project.
There are a few signs of life: Feral cats glare at visitors from a miniature jungle of Queen Anne's lace, thistle and goldenrod. Gulls swoop between the lot's towering trees and the adjacent sewage treatment plant.
Who knows whether New London will ever reap the financial rewards promised. In the meantime, Eminent Domain reform seems to have died down (especially in California) and the Eminent Domain lawyers of the world are once again fading into relative obscurity.
Rick Rayl is an experienced litigator on a broad range of complex civil litigation issues. His practice is concentrated primarily on eminent domain, inverse condemnation, and other real-estate-valuation disputes. His public ...
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