Wednesday, March 02, 2005

King Ranch files friend-of-the-court brief supporting Kelo

EDITORIAL: Property power

Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2005

Can the city of Fort Worth insist that business owners sell and relocate to accommodate a San Antonio-style riverfront project that would encompass restaurants, offices and new biking, jogging and water recreation facilities?

Can the city of Arlington compel homeowners, renters and businesses to vacate a deteriorated area in favor of a glitzy new Dallas Cowboys football stadium and the development that it supposedly would spur?

Can the state of Texas forcibly buy up vast parcels of land without specifying which, if any, would host the still-conceptual Trans -Texas Corridor ?

The answers could depend on 1.54 acres overlooking the Thames River in New London, Conn.

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to decide by summer whether New London's redevelopment agency can condemn several homes in the Fort Trumbull neighborhood, forcing residents to sell their property and yield to plans for new shops, residences and other amenities that city leaders hope will help revitalize a struggling community.

The court's ruling could set the course for developments nationwide in which governments exercise their eminent domain powers to purchase private property for reuse in ways that substantially benefit other private entities.

The Fifth Amendment allows governments to take private property through eminent domain if it's for "public use" and if owners are paid "just compensation."

But the definition of "public use" has sparked often-bitter fights.

In 1954, the court said a city could force a property owner to sell and vacate the premises for the rejuvenation of a blighted neighborhood.

But what if properties aren't public nuisances but are impediments to more lucrative public-private partnerships? Must individual owners' rights give way to the increased tax receipts, added jobs and other advantages that accompany commercial development?

A group of property owners fought the city of Hurst in court for years because they had to move for a road to facilitate North East Mall expansion. The case settled for about $3 million in 2000. The city now collects more than $12 million in sales taxes a year, largely because of the mall.

Arlington paid millions to settle suits stemming from its condemnation of property to build the Texas Rangers baseball park now known as Ameriquest Field.

Arlington will own the new Cowboys stadium and get $2 million in annual rent and some naming rights revenue, but game tickets still will cost dearly and owner Jerry Jones will benefit from the profits. Does that make this a public use?

The Trinity Uptown project almost surely will enhance Fort Worth economically and attract visitors to the river, but new developers will benefit while established businesses -- which already are protesting -- are uprooted. Does the project qualify as public use?

In a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the Connecticut homeowners, lawyers for the historic, 825,000-acre King Ranch in South Texas are looking down the line to a transportation project that has yet to be located.

They argue for a restrictive standard that would allow government to use eminent domain only when officials have "articulated a legitimate public purpose"; when the project wouldn't primarily benefit private persons; and when there is a demonstrated "present intent to use" or "present need" to take the property in question.

The King Ranch owners are concerned about legislation that lets the state acquire options to buy property "for possible use as part of the Trans-Texas Corridor even if the state hasn't decided to locate the highway on that land.

"Private property rights should not be subject to the government's whim, nor should a state government be permitted to use the power of eminent domain for land speculation," the King Ranch argues.

Obviously, the stakes are huge.

Even if the court refuses to tinker with precedent and continues to give government leeway to condemn property for redevelopment, the power to dislocate individuals should be used sparingly and fairly. It also should have a clear -- not speculative -- payoff to the greater community and not just to a few wealthy or politically powerful individuals.

Copyright 2005 Star-Telegram, Inc.: