Thursday, July 27, 2006

Justice is served! Sanity in eminent domain law

Note before reading this post that I've issued a later apology for unfair characterization of parties involved in this issue. My support for the supreme court decision still stands; my belief in individual property rights still stands; and I continue to hold my belief that institutions under pressure often exert coercive power in unhelpful ways. After reading this article, please follow the above link to the follow-up apology.

Imagine a time when that lovely old church building in the unpleasant part of town is siezed by the city and turned over to a millionaire developer who promises "exciting retail space combined with luxury condos". Imagine a time when a city government, with a crackhead's desperation for cash, tramples on individual liberty or the good of the community in the name of expanding the tax base. I can hear the rhetoric about how the economic development will lift the overall quality of life (rhetoric that is indeed grounded in truth). Meanwhile, decent middle class folks discover with dismay their role as disposable pawns in the great chess game of developers and local government.

This is the scenario that was playing out just around the corner from me in little Norwood, OH. Once a thriving industrial center, the city has lost tax revenue as factories have closed down and people moved away. Their solution has been economic development by luring large retail developments to the area. They've had great success with the Rookwood commons shopping center -- and just across the street from that development was a small 11 acre neighborhood -- mostly residential, rental, and small business offices. Like the wolf eyeing Red Riding hood's basket, developers waited their opportunity to seize the neighborhood and "improve" the property.

They started buying up property in the neighborhood -- paying premium prices (some of the properties went for twice the county auditor's appraisal). But three homeowners held out -- one was a couple in their mid 60's who had raised their family in their home and they were not ready to leave all their memories. Another was a small business renter whose 2 family unit sat right across from the existing development. I have little information on the third family. The developer, tired of these upstarts standing in the way of their million$, asked the city of Norwood to intervene. Like batallion of Panzers crossing into Poland, they intervened by declaring the neighborhood blighted and seizing the properties. A state court demanded that the homeowners be remitted 3 times the appraised value of their properties -- this is in the 400-500 thousand dollar range. Not a bad return, eh?

But then there is the ever tricky principle of the thing. Here we have government exercising an egregious abuse of power, grandiloquently seizing private property not for infrastructure or public works, but to be handed over to a developer waiting to cash in. A three year legal battle followed -- the developer fenced off the 11 acres and demolished all the homes save the three (which were protected by court order), leaving a scorched-earth desert awaiting their faustian ambitions to be completed.

Yesterday, justice was served. The Ohio Supreme Court ruled in favor of the three property owners. Norwood exceeded their authority in seizing the properties. See the Enquirer story right here.

The Norwood lawers have been playing their role as paid public mourners, wailing that this will threaten any use of public domain for any purpose. But pay no heed to their keening, justice has been served.

Rodeny Stark, in his book For the Glory of God posits that when a powerful authority is prosperous, it allows all kinds of creativity and liberty, but when that powerful authority comes under external pressure, it then begins to demand of its constituents strict conformity. He traces this pattern through the history of the Catholic church, which for a season in the Medeival Period allowed for reform and theological innovation, but when threatened by Islamic incursion leading up to the crusades, it began to demand strict doctrinal conformity (as evidenced in the crusades against the Waldensian reformers and the execution of Jan Hus and other reformers).

We see this pattern playing out all around us. Norwood, once flush with cash, allowed plenty of individual liberty. But now that cash is tight, imperial decrees come down that property owners need to "trust us, we're the experts".

We see this in Cincinnati's city council running roughshod over any sense of community identity and values as they desperately seek dollars from the ill concieved idea of casino gambling in downtown.

Some might argue that this is the case in the american mainline churches -- in the 1950's we were enthroned atop the cultural pyramid -- we held court in the country club and the halls of power. Then we were able to tolerate all kinds of innovation and expansion for the future was so bright, we had to wear shades. Now, after decades of declining membership, dollars, and prestige, we're pitched in a theological cage fight that threaten our identity, and the institutions are doing its best to assert centralized authority in the face of obvious fragmentation. Pick your denomination and it's happening.

And yet we see that in the face of heartless institutional expansion, the average citizen is able to stand an cry out for sanity, justice, and a halt to the greed that drives unreflective expansion. Corporations and business are accountable to their customers and to the public -- we do have a voice! We can indeed be salt and light to this world and make a difference. Praise God!

Soli Deo Gloria