NEAL CONAN, host:
Last week, BB&T, the nation's ninth largest bank announced that it will not lend to commercial developers that plan to build condominiums, shopping malls, and other private projects on land taken from private citizens by government entities using eminent domain. That's the latest shot in the developing battle over eminent domain.
Historically, eminent domain is used by state and local governments to get land needed for roads or parks or other public purposes. Last June, the Supreme Court ruled that eminent domain also covers the public good; that it's okay, for example, to seize private property to be part of an office complex that will generate jobs and taxes for the community as a whole. In the uproar that followed, several states rushed to enact laws to strictly limit eminent domain to public purposes; among them, the state of Iowa.
Yesterday, in the Des Moines Register, Rox Laird argued that there can be sometimes very good reasons to transfer property from one private owner to another under eminent domain. If you want to weigh in on one side or the other of this argument, our number is 800-989-8255, or 800-989-TALK. Our email address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rox Laird is an editorial writer for the Des Moines Register and he joins us now as part of our regular Monday Opinion Page feature. He's at the studios of WHO Radio in Des Moines. Thanks very much for being with us today.
Mr. ROX LAIRD (Editorial Writer, Des Moines Register): You're welcome.
CONAN: Now I, in your Opinion Editorial piece yesterday, you presented as your Exhibit A, downtown Des Moines, Iowa.
Mr. LAIRD: Yes. Des Moines has been going through this process of redevelopment ever since I've been in Des Moines, the past 30 years, and I've watched this play out over that time. And when that Supreme Court decision came down last June, the reaction was that, well the court had created something new here. It struck me as sort of odd, because I've watched this happen; where the City of Des Moines and other cities in Iowa have used eminent domain to acquire property for redevelopment.
CONAN: Thirty years ago you say downtown Des Moines was, well, could easily be described as a slum.
Mr. LAIRD: Well, actually it was. There was a consultant study done of the core, downtown area, and it was declared a slum and blighted. And the Iowa Supreme Court, in a subsequent ruling, upheld the definition of that for legal purposes.
CONAN: So in other words, the, well, I think it's fair to say boon that has come to downtown Des Moines, Iowa, you argue is due, at least in part, to the use of eminent domain to take private property and hand it over to other private property owners.
Mr. LAIRD: That's exactly right. In many cases in an old downtown area, and Des Moines is no different than any other city in the country, land is carved up into small parcels. You might have several pieces of land under one building, several different owners. Some of them tied up in trusts or by, owned by out of state groups who don't have an interest in them. It's almost impossible for a private developer to assemble that land. It's just not worth their trouble and expense.
CONAN: We're talking about eminent domain, and you're on the TALK OF THE NATION Opinion Page. This is NPR News.
I'm Neal Conan, and we're talking today with Rox Laird, an editorial writer for the Des Moines Register, who argues that eminent domain, much in the news since the Supreme Court's Kelo decision last year that effected New London, Connecticut, specifically, but across the country. It seemed to, as, in the descent, Justice Sandra Day O'Conner wrote, it seemed to say that every cornerstone can now be raised to make room for a Wal-mart. And, I think what you're saying, Rox Laird, is that, at least in the state of Iowa, it's not typically been used, or abused, in that way.
Mr. LAIRD: I'm not aware, I have not seen any examples that, along those lines. And, even in the majority opinion, the court said that a, taking for commercial purposes would have to be part of a well-thought through, complete, urban renewal plan. Not just taking one piece of land and giving it to another owner.
CONAN: Let's get some listeners in on the conversation. And, we'll begin with Chuck. Chuck's calling us from Anchorage, in Alaska.
CHUCK (Caller): Hi. An example of the, kind of flip flop of this whole argument, instead of using a eminent domain procedure to gain access for, like, a private development, we've actually gone to the extreme here in Anchorage. The municipal government actually passed an ordinance prohibiting eminent domain except for basically roads and bridges.
We have an extensive bicycle trail here that some of us would like to see extended to make a complete loop around the city, and it would involve taking the homes of some, or at least some property near homes that overlook an inlet. And these are homeowners with quite a bit of clout and are opposed to this bicycle trail extension, and they've actually persuaded the city government to prohibit using eminent domain for even a park-type extension.
CONAN: Rox Laird, that's, to some degree, what's going on in, I guess Iowa and other states where these proposals to limit eminent domain are under study.
Mr. LAIRD: Well, actually the state legislature did something similar to that here a couple of years ago where they protected farm ground from extension of recreational trails across farmland. And this, again, is a point that the court made. If the legislature in a given state wants to put limits on how this power is used that's, they're in the best position to see how that should be done.
CONAN: And, uh, thanks Chuck for the call, appreciate it.
CHUCK: Thank you.
CONAN: And, in the case there in Iowa, what you're suggesting is that in fact if the legislature limited the use of eminent domain to public purposes, as opposed to public good, you may end up with another rotting civic downtown, the core of the city, while it becomes easier and easier to develop on the fringes of the city.
Mr. LAIRD: That's true. It's always easier to develop where you have virgin farm ground, and the market forces make it more lucrative for those sellers to sell, and the result is sprawl. It's much harder to redevelop an aging downtown business district.
CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is St. Clare. St. Clare calling us from Cathedral City, in California.
ST. CLARE (Caller): Good morning. Great show.
CONAN: Thank you.
ST. CLARE: I'm in a redevelopment area here in Cathedral City. Actually it's right next to Palm Springs. And the redevelopment monies that are coming in for this, it's a huge downtown redevelopment project that's going on, the grants are coming in from federal and the states. One of the questions I'd have is, even though the Supreme Court ruled that the, for the betterment of the community, is it really morally right for these governments? And can the local people do something about their own city saying, You know what? Even though you can do this, we don't want you to do this.
CONAN: Rox Laird?
Mr. LAIRD: Yes they can. I mean, that's exactly what the court said is that local governments, legislatures, city councils, boards of supervisors, are free to put whatever limits they want on. So your city council is perfectly free to ban this sort of development, use of eminent domain for development.
CONAN: Or, the state legislature in Sacramento could do it as well.
Mr. LAIRD: Exactly.
ST. CLARE: And that would be done through what? A, um...?
CONAN: Well, presumably the local board would have to pass a, you know, whatever it is they pass...
ST. CLARE: A resolution.
CONAN: ...a resolution or, you know, a bill, whatever it is. And, again, the state legislature would have to pass a law.
Mr. LAIRD: That might, for California, an initiative.
CONAN: Yes, or in California an initiative. Of course. You always have that option there.
ST. CLARE: And how about the monies tied to the grants? You know, is there any restrictions tied to the grants?
CONAN: Well, if it's a federal grant, that would be the constitution, and the constitution says, as we just heard in the interpretation of the court, it's constitutional to seize this land under eminent domain. So I'm not sure you'd have so much luck there.
ST. CLARE: Ah, good point.
CONAN: Yeah. St. Clare, good luck to you.
ST. CLARE: Thank you very much.
CONAN: Appreciate it. Rox Laird, thanks very much for being on the Opinion Page today.
Mr. LAIRD: Thank you.
CONAN: Rox Laird is editorial writer for the Des Moines Register and joined us today as part of our regular Opinion Page feature from the studios of WHO Radio, there in Des Moines, Iowa. If you'd like to read a copy of his editorial, you can go to the Opinion Page feature at npr.org.
I'm Neal Conan, this is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.