Ruling allows local government to seize property for commercial use

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:50

    The Highlands Act has ensured that West Milford will not suffer out-of-control suburban sprawl. On the other hand, that means a limited amount of usable property. When a divided U.S. Supreme Court broadened the government's right to seize private property last week, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor painted a grim portrait of what was to come. She said wealthy investors and city leaders had been given the power to run people from their homes to make way for new development. The line between public and private property has been blurred, O'Connor said in her dissent, and no home is safe. Governments have traditionally used their eminent domain authority to build roads, reservoirs and other public projects. But the power has gradually expanded, allowing cities to eliminate blight. On Thursday of last week, the high court ruled that New London, CT could raze a neighborhood to build a privately owned hotel and office space that officials say could add millions of dollars to the tax base. While municipal leaders say the future O'Connor describes is unrealistic, those who have fought eminent domain say it's already here. "Now that they've got carte blanche to do whatever they want, they will,'' said Dick Saha, 75, who in May won a six-year fight to keep Coatesville, Pa., from seizing his farm. ``They decided they needed our property for a golf course.'' In his majority opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens said local leaders — not federal judges — know best whether a development plan will benefit the community. But O'Connor warned that the decision made it easier for the rich to seize property from the poor. New London Mayor Jane Glover said the tiny coastal city of just 6 square miles had its ``back against the water'' and could not redevelop without taking land. Though seven families who resisted the effort asked to be incorporated in the development, city officials said the old homes would not fit in their plans. Baltimore used eminent domain to build its Inner Harbor. New York used it to revitalize Times Square. Both cities filed briefs with the Supreme Court in the New London case, urging them not to curtail that power. While property rights groups predicted Thursday's decision would encourage more seizures, the International Economic Development Council, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit group, said eminent domain remains a risky political move. ``This is a last resort,'' said Jeffrey Finkle, the group's president. ``I can't imagine that this Supreme Court ruling will all of a sudden cause every city council member to risk alienating their constituents by rampantly doing eminent domain.''