Examining the Debate over Eminent Domain

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Last year the U.S. Supreme Court said governments can seize property even if they give the land to private developers. That spurred ballot measures in seven states this year, including California. Tony Cox weighs both sides of the issue with Bob Woodson, founder and president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise in Washington, D.C. and Jerry Rosenfeld, president of the JR Group in Detroit.


And now eminent domain and the national debate. NPR's Tony Cox spoke with Bob Woodson, the founder and president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise in Washington, D.C. He was also joined by Jerry Rosenfeld, president of the JR Group in Detroit, Michigan.

Mr. Rosenfeld began the conversation by discussing a proposal in Michigan that seeks to strip the government of its land-taking power by amending the state constitution. It's a measure, he says, that threatens economic growth.

Mr. JERRY ROSENFELD (President, JR Group, Detroit Michigan): If you have $100,000 home, and we buy, that's a fair market - it's just compensation to fair price. That person is entitled to additional benefits. And those benefits will add up to maybe $20,000, or $20,000 to $25,000 in addition. So he gets his base program, his package is a hundred and a quarter. The new law will say that he's entitled to not less than a $125,000, plus the $20,000 or $25,000 extra in benefits.

And he has permission now to go to court and say, well, you know, I don't want a 125 percent. I want a 126 percent, or maybe I want 200 percent or 300 percent, there's no cap. This is going to stop classic infrastructure development throughout the state of Michigan.

Mr. BOB WOODSON (President, National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise): Yeah, Jerry, this is the same argument that was used in the '60s to justify the total wiping out of the commercial district in the Hayti section of Durham, North Carolina. And the promise was that these businesses and these residents would be relocated.

Today, 50 acres are still vacant, and they never rebuilt. And it represents a total destabilization of it. Ten homes in Hurst, Texas, were condemned to move while the spouses of the two homes were dying of cancer.

Another one in Tyler, Texas, they moved the women out of her house and then moved an owner of a golf course in her home. And many public officials have proprietary interests in some of this development because they're also business developers.

TONY COX: Does it boil down simply to the fact that the owners of the property want to get what they consider a fair market price before the city or the state or whomever takes their property and does whatever they decide to do?

Mr. ROSENFELD: Well, if it is a federally funded program, and that means that if there's $1 of federal funds in the project, then the agency, whoever it may be whose buying the property, must comply with a federal law, that is the Uniform Relocation Act.

This law is very equitable. There are very few cases - there are very few instances where someone is abused by this. And there's very few condemnation cases involved. If it's a state program, now the state doesn't necessarily have to follow the federal rules if there's no federal dollars in it. And there could become abuses with that. I'm not questioning that. And people should follow the federal law and the abuses wouldn't be there.

COX: Now what about...

Mr. WOODSON: Well, you should read about the quick-take provisions in many states. Under the quick-take, if a government deposits an estimate for the compensation with the courts amount of money, it can take immediate title to the property, get possession immediately within a few months, level the property. That means that the property is immediately bulldozed, leaving their owner to fight in court about whether the new empty lot that remains was legally condemned. These are the provisions that are in place in many states.

Mr. ROSENFELD: And you could fight necessity, and if you fight the necessity, they can't touch your property until the necessity is proven.

Mr. WOODSON: If you fight the necessity, and many homeowners don't even know about it.

COX: And let me ask you both. Do either of you see a situation, a scenario in which property can be taken via eminent domain and used in a private development process but that purpose does benefit the public?


COX: Bob, do you see that too?

Mr. WOODSON: No. This has been used time and time again to justify the taking of people. If I own a business and the government determines that my gross sales are - and the number of the employees that I have are not enough, then you can take it and give to a larger business that hires more people. Is that fair to the small business owner? What about my potential for becoming a large business and growing?

Mr. ROSENFELD: Bob, your issue is just compensation. You're...

Mr. WOODSON: No. I'm not.

Mr. ROSENFELD: Your idea is valuing...

Mr. WOODSON: Some people don't want to sell under any condition.

Mr. ROSENFELD: ...your argument is just money.

Mr. WOODSON: It isn't money.

Mr. ROSENFELD: I - that's not the question asked here. The question that they asked here is is there a situation where a government would take a piece property and then in - from an individual, and then turn it around and give it to private enterprise? That's the question is on the table right now.

COX: No. And whether or not in doing so that private enterprise it inures to the public's benefit.

Mr. ROSENFELD: If anyone's familiar with the city of Detroit, we have a lot of blight here. I mean we have a lot of problems, we have a lot of issues because the automotive industry and the downturn of the industry.

But we have huge areas of property that are vacant. Let's take an area that's defined as a blighted area. And there is someone who in the middle of the blighted area that is non-conforming and we have the opportunity of a development in that property to revitalize that particular area through blight and through condemnation.

Now we happen to have done this - as people are familiar with brand new stadiums, the Lions and the Tigers - just north of here was an area called Brush Park, and this was as scary, blighted, drug-infested area as you could find in the city of Detroit. Today, because they had the ability to condemn the property, to take the people out of there - and which they did, and some of the people stayed and they had the opportunity to stay in by the homes that are in there - and they went forward and they have a great development over there.

Mr. WOODSON: You see, Jerry assumes that everybody has the same definition of blight. A place where there are rats and roaches and trash and drugs and - but that is not the case. For instance, there are neighborhoods on colonial homes in Lakewood, Ohio, they were defined as blighted because the yards were too small and they lacked two-car attached garages. The city's redevelopment plans call for upscale condominiums and retail, and therefore they condemned these properties.

So when you use the word blight, it's an emotional term and the assumption is that it is defined singly. It is not the case in (unintelligible).

Mr. ROSENFELD: And, Bob, you're right. That is - it is an issue. I think there should be a much better definition of the term in blight and how it is used.

COX: Given the actions of the Supreme Court with regard to imminent domain. Now that it's falling back into the hands of the states to decide, do you both agree or disagree with the ability of the states to determine the parameters for eminent domain state by state?

Mr. ROSENFELD: They always have.

Mr. WOODSON: They always have. And 40 percent of the cases brought before the courts were ruled in favor of the complainants against the government, and I think that trend is continuing.

Mr. ROSENFELD: Yeah, but...

Mr. WOODSON: There's something more than money here. People have an emotional attachment to their home and many don't want to sell it at any price.

Mr. ROSENFELD: Emotional...

COX: Jerry, this is the last word.

Mr. ROSENFELD: Emotional attachment to property is a huge issue, but it's non-compensable by the U.S. Constitution. And next, a lot of this economic development stuff is going to be challenged in the court and it's going to fall apart because the Poletown case isn't there anymore to support the positions of these governmental agencies.

Mr. WOODSON: Well there is a consensus, Democrats and Republicans at the local level, that are supporting homeowners. And you are going to see the trend against government intrusion into private property like this for alleged public purposes.

COX: This is the good place for us to stop. Robert Woodson, Jerry Rosenfeld, thank you very much for a spirited and enlightening conversation.

Mr. ROSENFELD: Tony, thank you very much and have a great day.

Mr. WOODSON: And thank you.

CHIDEYA: That was NPR's Tony Cox with Jerry Rosenfeld, president of the JR Group in Detroit, Michigan, and Bob Woodson, founder and president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: Coming up, gay couples in New Jersey win the same legal benefits as married couples, but will they actually be allowed to marry? And the federal government support single-sex public schools. We'll discuss these topics and more on our Roundtable, next.

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