Herald Journal Columns
Oct. 31, 2005, Herald Journal

This land is not my land, or yours

By LIZ HELLMANN

I’ve always been a firm believer in the American dream, but recent rulings have nudged American government closer to communism.

Unfortunately, it is not because we are striving to find a classless society. Rather, America has basically decided land belongs to everyone.

Everyone, excluding all individuals (you and me), and including any government body, or even private businesses.

It’s a little law called eminent domain.

In its euphemistic sense, the law appears to be designed with the public’s greater good in mind. It claims any privately-owned land can be seized (for a “fair” price) if it will be used to benefit the general public. Unfortunately, benefiting the general public tends to translate into generating more tax revenue.

A more scholarly definition of eminent domain is: the power of a government to take private property for public use; the 5th Amendment of the US Constitution and articles in many state constitutions allow this practice provided that just compensation is made.

I am not a law student, nor do I care to get wrapped up in politics. It seems like a sticky webbed mess, best left to those who are willing to risk being eaten alive.

I do know that many people are upset about this law, and it will affect everyone, eventually.

There are numerous cases floating around the news of people who have had their homes bought out from under them to make way for a ballpark, shopping mall, or new condominiums.

Every time I read these accounts, I think there must be something missing. This couldn’t possibly be happening in America.

It’s the unraveling of the America dream; the polar opposite of the touted capitalistic philosophy.

This law has troubled me ever since it first resonated like nails on a chalkboard in my disbelieving ears. But I never thought it would impact the community where I lived.

This problem was surely to be corralled in bigger cities, not in my neck of the woods.

Not where family farms still thrive, and backyards are big enough to play a Sunday afternoon baseball game.

Sadly, this sickening formula is corrupting even local governmental processes.

It appears that the Glencoe City Council has agreed to use the power of eminent domain as an option to obtain property for its airport expansion plans, according to an article in the McLeod County Chronicle.

Only one council member, Roger Hilgers, voted against the motion (whom I applaud).

The council has offered landowner Curt Templin $40,000 for his 6.16 acres of property, but Templin is looking for $20,000 per acre, according to reports.

In the article, it was then noted that the council will continue negotiations at $40,000.

City Administrator Mark Larson suggested the council proceed with condemnation if negotiations fail.

Basically, the council has set its price on the table, and if Templin doesn’t agree to it, the council will seize his property at that price anyway. The only difference is, if Templin agrees, it can be called “negotiating,” and if he doesn’t, eminent domain will be the term of choice.

The council’s argument is that the land isn’t worth Templin’s asking price, unless it is developed by the city.

I wonder if they’ve taken a moment to actually think about that sentence.

It appears to me, the city’s plans aren’t worth anything without Templin’s land.

Templin obviously is aware what his land is worth to the developer, and wants that price; otherwise, he would rather keep it.

In another example, a retired couple in Ohio are fighting for their home and their neighborhood. They have lived their whole lives there, and would like to retire in the home they built, and pass it on to their children.

But their neighborhood is a prime spot for new upscale condominiums and a strip mall.

Therefore, the city will attempt to “bargain” with them to determine a fair price. If the couple refuses to sell their home, the bargaining will cease.

In the America I knew, this would mean the city would not be getting a new condominium and the couple could enjoy having their grandchildren at their house for Christmas dinner.

But in post-eminent-domain America, the city will offer its price, and then take the couple’s home, whether or not they agree.

Sure, the city has its side of the story. A quiet little neighborhood of retirees doesn’t boost the city’s budget like a couple sets of high-price condos and a strip mall would.

The public good will be served by increasing tax revenue. It makes sense, as long as you subtract the couple and their neighbors from the “public” in that equation.

This law is turning private businesses and government bodies into nothing more than grade school bullies.

A bully approaches the smaller students in the lunchroom, demanding their lovingly-packed bag lunches.

If the anyone refuses the bully, he grabs the lunch by force.

The only small twist offered by this law is that the bully is required to toss a dollar at the poor students. But a vending machine lunch is hardly a substitute for mom’s mashed potatoes and gravy.

Likewise, market value hardly begins to make a dent in the years of sweat, memories, and dreams that a person’s private property contains.

Eminent domain offers us shiny new buildings, airports, and malls, at the price of broken and despondent citizens.

It comes down to this: some things in life are priceless, and increasing tax revenue is not one of them.

The Supreme Court may have passed this law, but I urge our governmental bodies to think twice before using it as justification for taking its own citizens’ land.


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