Friday, July 08, 2005

"Local leaders didn't learn about the proposal until shortly after it was submitted to the state in April."

Toll exec says let's give wheel to state


Patrick Driscoll Staff Writer
San Antonio Express-News, Copyright 2005

If state officials insist on hijacking toll road decisions in San Antonio, such as whether to let private companies step in, then maybe it's best to back off and give them their way, local leaders say.

Let the Texas Department of Transportation take all the credit — or blame — for the toll plan that emerges for San Antonio, suggested Bill Thornton, chairman of the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority.

"Efforts on our part to insert ourselves or gain control of the process are only creating friction and discomfort," Thornton said in an e-mail this week to his board members. "That isn't good for anyone."

The roots of the problem are deep, with tension budding this year.

In an effort to control toll roads here and at the insistence of the state, Bexar County commissioners created the mobility authority early last year. State officials said they would build a 22-mile starter system on Loop 1604 and U.S. 281 on the North Side to kick-start the authority.

But at the same time, the Spanish company Cintra and its San Antonio partner Zachry American Infrastructure were gathering data from the state to submit a proposal to build and operate the starter system and double the mileage.

Cintra-Zachry would pay for the $1.3 billion 47-mile network, speeding up work and freeing up $610 million in tax subsidies. But the consortium would collect toll fees of 15 cents or more a mile for up to 50 years, money that local officials hoped to reinvest in other toll projects.

Local leaders didn't learn about the proposal until shortly after it was submitted to the state in April. Thornton, the county judge and the mayor quickly shot off a letter to ask that any final decisions be made locally, and the discussion has continued since.

Texas Transportation Commission members were surprised, even dismayed. At a meeting last week, Commissioner Ted Houghton told Thornton that the state can put in the hard work needed to evaluate private proposals, and besides, Austin and Dallas officials haven't taken such stiff stances.

"We were all taken aback by the position the RMA (in San Antonio) started taking," said Hope Andrade, a state commission member from San Antonio.

Transportation commissioners have repeatedly promised not to decide anything without the blessing of San Antonio officials. But, as the agency's general counsel advised at Thursday's meeting, the state cannot and should not abdicate its responsibility to a local entity.

For San Antonio, it's a promise without a contract.

"It's never healthy to get into a deal, especially a deal like this, and not have no vote on it," said County Judge Nelson Wolff.

At the same meeting, commissioners voted to pursue the Cintra-Zachry proposal and seek bids from other companies, even though San Antonio officials wanted a postponement.

Nevertheless, state officials maintain that San Antonio is at the table, with plenty of time to weigh in as proposals are evaluated over the next year.

"As far as I'm concerned, we're still skipping along together," Andrade said. "I'm still holding hands."

Thornton said twice in his e-mail that local officials will help if asked but it's now clear that San Antonio doesn't have a final say in decisions.

"We wish them well but we're not going to continue knocking on their door," he said.

San Antonio Express-News:


Thursday, July 07, 2005

"We believe this is a gross misinterpretation of the intent of our founding fathers."

Farm Bureau Seeking Takings Amendment


Livestock Weekly
Copyright 2005

WACO — The Texas Farm Bureau is calling for an amendment to the Texas Constitution that would clearly define “public use,” as it pertains to the taking of private property.

A recent decision handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court spurred the organization’s action. In a June 29 letter to Texas Governor Rick Perry, TFB president Kenneth Dierschke requested that Perry add the proposed amendment to the agenda during the first called special session of the 79th Texas Legislature.

“Private property rights were dealt a devastating blow by the United States Supreme Court on June 23rd,” the letter said. “The Court ruled that eminent domain used for private business development is a legal use of condemnation authority.

“The Texas Farm Bureau completely disagrees with the court’s opinion. Under their definition of public use, land can now be condemned any time a governmental entity can show that a positive economic benefit will result from the condemnation. We believe this is a gross misinterpretation of the intent of our founding fathers.

“The entire purpose of allowing eminent domain for only a ‘public use’ was to place limitations on this power. The decision of the U.S. Supreme Court on Kelo v. New London has now removed any meaningful limit on this awesome power to take someone’s property.”

The agenda of the special session is under the sole control of the governor. Only items placed on the call of the special session by the Governor of Texas can be considered by the legislature.

“We believe this issue is of the urgency and importance to warrant immediate action by the legislature to protect private property rights across Texas,” said Dierschke, adding that the constitutional amendment should be on the Nov. 8 general election ballot.

© 2005 Livestock Weekly:

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"Quite a few of the projects for which land is taken and property destroyed are never built."

The Ongoing Government Outrage


By Roger Kolb
Somerville Journal
Copyright 2005

Highland Avenue's Jim Campano isn't as famous as Elie Wiesel. But just as Wiesel has become a living reminder of the Holocaust, Jim, 64, is a symbol of another government outrage, this one ongoing: Eminent domain abuse. In 1958, Jim, a West Ender, was kicked out of his home by the City of Boston in partnership with its developer buddies, the Rappoports, in order to put up Charles River Park.

Applauding on the sidelines were Boston's big-city dailies, Democratic as well as Republican, who cheerfully sacrificed the feelings and economic welfare of little guys like Jim on the altar of Progress.

With the highly-publicized Kelo vs. New London before the Supreme Court, I interviewed Jim in this space a few months ago in a primer about eminent domain abuse.

On June 23 the Kelo decision came down, with the Court, especially its liberals, siding by a 5-4 vote with Big Brother against you, me, Jim, and New London’s homeowners, including Suzette Kelo and Wilhelmina Dery, who, silly her, thought she had more right to her home of 87 years than Pfizer Pharmaceutical.

I asked Jim whether the Kelo decision surprised him.

"Well, yeah," he said with an anguished look on his face, running his fingers through his tousled, salt-and-pepper hair. "I was surprised that not a single one of the Court's liberals sided with the homeowners. They didn't and today no one's home or business is safe."

The Supreme Court has the authority to declare unconstitutional state or federal statutes, as well as decisions handed down by state or lower federal courts. Judicial review, as it is called, isn't mentioned in the Constitution, but fully 67 of our founding fathers, including Alexander Hamilton, in their utterances public and private, written and spoken, expected the Supreme Court to assume that authority.

In Kelo, what was at issue was whether a community (New London), could take private property away from someone (its homeowners) and give to another private party (Pfizer Pharmaceutical or whomever) in the interests of economic development. The Constitution's Fifth Amendment says that government can only take private property for "public use" with "just compensation."

Writing for the majority, Justice John Paul Stevens declared that economic dvelopment is a valid reason for property taking because it has been going on for some time and with the blessings of courts, both state and federal. He added that the disputed property wasn't being taken from one private party to be given to another because New London had its sights on the property before companies such as Pfizer entered the picture. It was being taken by economically-distressed New London for whatever purpose it deemed fit.

Neither Sandra Day O'Connor nor Clarence Thomas in a highly-detailed and informative second dissenting opinion bought the argument that Pfizer wasn't being shown favoritism. (A check of the dates backs them up. Pfizer annnounced that it intended to build a global research plant in New London in February 1998 and it was after that, not before, that the nonprofit New London Development Corporation was created to, among other things, consider the possibility of property seizure by eminent domain.) The four dissenting justices added that if political entities were to be allowed to invoke eminent domain merely to broaden their tax base, the phrase "public use" was being re-defined to justify any taking under the sun.

Justices O'Connor and Thomas cited the sanctity in which our founding fathers as well as the reigning legal authority, William Blackstone, held private property, and declared that there was no way they would have approved of eminent domain for economic revival. To think that Hamilton, Washington, and Blackstone would have condoned, let alone applauded, the New London takings is preposterous.

But for a few passing references to the Fifth Amendment, Justice Stevens said nothing about the intentions of our founders. Elsewhere he declared the Supreme Court does not have the responsibility to see to it that any particular project on taken property comes to fruition.

"That," said Jim, "is one of the most disturbing aspects of eminent domain. The most disturbing is that people are kicked out of their homes, often in exchange for a pittance, and that 90% of the businesses that have to re-locate fail. Another disturbing thing is the one Stevens and his like-minded justices don't want to think about. Quite a few of the projects for which land is taken and property destroyed are never built. In 1981, Detroit took roughly 2,000 homes so that GM could build another plant. No sooner was the land taken and the houses leveled than GM decided it didnâ't want to build on that site after all. Is that justice?"

Somerville Journal:

© 2005 Somerville Journal::


Wednesday, July 06, 2005

"In the Lone Star State, property rights are strongly held, even regarded as sacred."

Editorial: Texas will limit eminent domain

July 6, 2005
The Victoria Advocate
Copyright 2005

"We emphasize that nothing in our opinion precludes any state from placing further restrictions on its exercise of the takings power," Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the U.S. Supreme Court's majority in its recent decision in Kelo vs. City of New London.

"Indeed, many states already impose 'public use' requirements that are stricter than the federal baseline. Some of these requirements have been established as a matter of state constitutional law, while others are expressed in state eminent domain statutes that carefully limit the grounds upon which takings may be exercised," Stevens continued.

The Kelo decision evoked considerable controversy because it broadened the power of the Connecticut city that was its defendant - and, by extension, every other entity of government in the country - to define eminent domain. Government would not be limited in invoking this power to acquire land for its own use. Now it could authorize private entities to do so in the name of economic development to produce greater tax revenue.

Like other rights the Bill of Rights protects, private property ownership is not absolute, no matter the vehemence with which absolutists insist otherwise. But as we noted in this space June 26, the nation's highest court went too far in potentially undermining that constitutional right.

Even Stevens and the four other justices who concurred in his ruling may have realized this, for the opinion both tried to justify their decision and reminded state legislatures that they could ignore it at will.

Earlier in the ruling, before the portion cited above, Stevens wrote, "Viewed as a whole, our jurisprudence has recognized that the needs of society have varied between different parts of the nation, just as they have evolved over time in response to changed circumstances.

"Our earliest cases in particular embodied a strong theme of federalism, emphasizing the 'great respect' that we owe to state legislatures and state courts in discerning local public needs."

So state lawmakers who do not want their political subdivisions to privatize eminent domain, as Connecticut's New London did, can restrict its use. They can prohibit the use in their territory of the expanded definition the Supreme Court approved in Kelo.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor ignored this key point in her eloquent dissent: "Under the banner of economic development, all private property is now vulnerable to being taken and transferred to another private owner, so long as it might be upgraded - i.e., given to an owner who will use it in a way that the legislature deems more beneficial to the public - in the process."

As much as O'Connor and her careful reasoning will be missed from the Supreme Court, in this instance, she was too shrill. She did not pay enough attention to the important reservation her colleagues on the other side of the decision explicitly and repeatedly made: that state legislatures have the power to limit the use of eminent domain.

It is not impossible to envision legitimate uses for this expanded definition, although they should be carefully evaluated on a case-by-case basis to prevent its abuse. But, again, that is up to state lawmakers to determine.

In Texas, lawmakers from both parties and across the ideological spectrum responded forcefully and negatively to the Supreme Court's ruling in Kelo.

In the Texas House of Representatives, members as diverse as state Rep. Frank Corte, R-San Antonio, and Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, are backing a proposed constitutional amendment to prevent local governmental entities from defining "public good" to benefit private developers. Similar measures have been introduced in the Texas Senate.

The sponsors want Gov. Rick Perry to put this matter on the agenda for the 79th Legislature's special session. We disagree, for two reasons.

First, lawmakers have their hands more than full during the special session trying to reform the state's antiquated, inequitable, insufficient system of funding public education. That is the session's only priority. Nothing else should distract lawmakers until they have completed it.

Second, lawmakers would benefit from a little time and distance from the Kelo ruling, to ensure that they respond appropriately, rather than overreact and wind up restricting government's use of eminent domain to do what government legitimately needs to do.

We suspect that Perry might be concerned that such a constitutional amendment could affect his gargantuan Trans-Texas Corridor transportation project. Its private developers cannot fund and build it without using eminent domain on a scale that greatly - and legitimately - worries many Texans.

Texas lawmakers almost certainly will respond to the Kelo ruling by asking voters to limit the definition of eminent domain here, and voters probably will concur. In the Lone Star State, property rights are strongly held, even regarded as sacred.

Justice Stevens and his colleagues might not agree, but they do properly recognize this to be Texas' right in our federal system.

The Victoria Advocate:


Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Letter to Editor: "Remind Krusee that you elected him to be aware of the issues that affect his constituents."

Krusee should protect interests of constituents

Taylor Daily Press Copyright 2005

Editor: Rarely have I heard the words, "I don't know," more often than during the June 27 town hall meeting hosted by the Coupland Civic Organization to discuss proposed rail lines through the Coupland area. The guest speakers, County Commissioner Frankie Limmer and Wendy Reilly and Jason Nelson, chief of staff and legislative aide to Rep. Mike Krusee, were consistently unable - or unwilling, as has been speculated by many in the community - to provide any information about prospective routes or timelines for the proposed rail lines.

For those who are unaware of the situation ..., the Trans-Texas Corridor is a plan established by TxDOT (Texas Department of Transportation). They will include road, rail, utility and pipeline routes. Most of these routes will be tolled. Massive amounts of land will be taken from families and farmers across the state and handed over to Cintra, the Spanish development firm that was awarded the first contract to build the Corridor.

Eventually, TxDOT envisions corridors like this stretching across the state, from the Panhandle to the Rio Grande Valley. The first project is slated to run along a line east of I-35. Though we have been reassured that the road route through Williamson County will be SH 130, currently under construction near Hutto and Pflugerville, the thought of the corridors project coming to fruition is a daunting prospect. The United States Supreme Court ruled only last week that it is entirely constitutional for a state or local government to take land from its current owner under eminent domain and give it to another private entity (Kelo vs. New London). ...

One would think that our elected officials would be doing everything in their power to protect their constituents from such a fearsome local and national climate. Unfortunately, they aren't.

If you go to the Texas House of Representatives Web site, you will find that some of the most noteworthy bills authored or coauthored by Rep. Krusee in recent history include HB 2656, which prompted the frenzy over a potential airport that threatened to take land from many residents near FM 1660 outside of Hutto and caused an unusual amount of polarization among the citizens of Taylor. He also worked on HB 1546, which paved the way for HJR 54, a constitutional amendment that will create a rail relocation fund which someday may issue the funds required to sever the Coupland area in two in order to construct an alternate route to a freight line that currently runs through central Austin.

For a full listing of bills authored or coauthored by Rep. Krusee during the 79th Legislative Session, please visit

After sponsoring all of this legislation, one would think that Rep. Krusee would be keeping pretty close tabs on the actions that TxDOT has been taking after being granted so many new powers. Judging by the meeting in Coupland ..., this is not the case either. Staff members from Krusee's office were unsure of where the rail line would go - other than somewhere between two old rail lines located along Mopac Expressway and SH 95 - and unaware of even the most basic timetable for when construction would begin.

At the Coupland meeting, the theme might as well have been uncertainty. Residents were uncertain whether their century-old farms would be seized to make way for someone else's idea of 'progress' in the near future, and guest speakers were unsure of how to answer simple questions about the progress of the projects that may do so. Many of the questions were based directly on the legislation mentioned earlier in this letter.

In conclusion, if you are at all concerned about the future of your town, your home or your family, please contact your state representative. Remind him that you elected him to be aware of the issues that affect his constituents.

Instead of authoring bills that will help facilitate the destruction of this beautiful and historic area and turn "miles and miles of Texas" into miles and miles of asphalt and railroad ties, he should be doing things that benefit the communities he serves.


Margaret Garry , Coupland, Texas

Taylor Daily Press:


"Lacking such action, we are no better off than many third-world countries."

Both houses, both parties back eminent domain limits

Lawmakers join forces on measures to prevent abuse of high court ruling

July 5, 2005

Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle

AUSTIN - Saying the U.S. Supreme Court erred when it ruled recently that local governments can seize land for private development, Texas lawmakers are rallying around proposed constitutional amendments and other legislation to help prevent such seizures.

Both conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats in Austin said last week that they support the proposals to allow Texans to vote on the issue this November, saying the high court's ruling undermines the fundamental right to own private property.

And in Washington, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, introduced legislation last week prohibiting the use of eminent domain authority for economic development purposes if federal funds are used.

"The protection of homes, small business and other private property rights against government seizure and other unreasonable government interference is a fundamental principle and core commitment of our nation's founding fathers," Cornyn said on the floor of the U.S. Senate.

The high court, in a 5-4 decision last month involving an economic development project in New London, Conn., held that promoting economic development is a "traditional and long-accepted government function" and therefore falls under local governments' authority to use eminent domain to take property from an unwilling seller.

Bipartisan issue

However, the court emphasized that nothing in its ruling prevents states from placing new restrictions on the power of governmental bodies to take private property for economic development purposes.

In Texas, with its strong tradition of private property rights, the decision has struck a populist and bipartisan chord.

Liberals want more restrictions on eminent domain because the poor are most vulnerable to property seizures for private economic interests capable of creating a higher tax base.

Conservatives say they want to protect individuals and businesses alike from overly intrusive governmental powers.

"The right to own and use property is inherent in a free society. When a government decides they know how to use the private property better than the individual, private property rights cease to exist," said state Rep. Frank Corte, R-San Antonio, the leading author of House Joint Resolution 19, which seeks to amend the state Constitution to prevent land seizures for primarily economic development purposes.

Corte, who noted that his office has been flooded with calls from worried property owners, has already garnered 100 co-sponsors for the measure. Sen. Robert Deuell, R-Greenville, filed an identical companion resolution in the Texas Senate, while Sen. Kyle Janek, R-Houston, has filed a separate resolution on the issue.

Democratic Reps. Garnet Coleman, Al Edwards and Melissa Noriega of Houston are among the co-sponsors of Corte's resolution.

"Maybe this is a place where I'm just more conservative," said Coleman, who some consider one of the most liberal lawmakers in the House. "I have seen abuses in neighborhoods of color that have been run over or older neighborhoods that are now valuable. With eminent domain, you could take that neighborhood for its value."

Not just for development
Corte's constitutional amendment would prevent local county or city governments from taking private property if the purpose is primarily for economic development. Coleman said he signed on but would like to see the state government included and the debate opened to abuses of eminent domain in general.

Rep. Dwayne Bohac, R-Houston, said he thinks the Supreme Court erred in its ruling, and it's up to the Texas Legislature to fix it.

"Municipalities should not be able to take private property for or on behalf of another private property owner," he said. "It could actually screw up the real estate market. It's just terrible."

'Too much wiggle room'
Janek's proposed constitutional amendment would place tougher restrictions than Corte proposes on the government's power to take land.

"His says 'primarily for economic development.' For me, that's just too much wiggle room," Janek said.

Janek explained that under the House proposal, a local government could take 15 acres, say it is using 10 of those for a park, and still use the other five for an economic development.

Senate Joint Resolution 9 would not allow governmental units, including the state, to use eminent domain for any economic development purposes.

Janek said measures in both the House and Senate need further work to prevent governments from finding loopholes.

For instance, he wants to add a time provision of perhaps 10 years to prevent a government from seizing land for a public park and then flipping the property to a private developer six months later.

Gov. Rick Perry has not added the issue to his call for a special session, telling lawmakers he won't expand the session to other items until they pass public school funding reforms and a tax plan to pay for them and lower property taxes.

"At first blush, it (the court's ruling) does cause the governor a great deal of concern. Without seeing what might finally pass, it's impossible to say," said Perry's spokeswoman, Kathy Walt.

Both Corte and Janek are asking Perry to consider the issue an emergency. The governor has received at least 113 letters and 148 calls from constituents also urging him to help protect property owners from the Supreme Court's ruling.

"Lacking such action, we are no better off than many third-world countries," wrote Jerry and Sharon Allen of Brenham.

Melanie and Van Johnson of Burleson urged Perry to take up the issue during the current special session. If he doesn't, they warned, "we will be forced to think long and hard before casting our vote" in the next gubernatorial race.

Countering the proposals

The Texas Municipal League opposes the proposed amendments, saying the Supreme Court merely affirmed a right local governments already have.

Frank Sturzl, the league's executive director, said Corte's and Janek's proposals are flawed because a landowner could argue any attempt to seize their land is for economic development purposes and take the matter to court.

Freeport Mayor Jim Phillips said the proposed constitutional amendments will not affect the city's ongoing efforts to seize three tracts of land along the Old Brazos River from two seafood companies to be used for an $8 million private marina.

"You can't make an ex post facto law," Phillips said. "There's nothing that says that you can void a contract. We already have a contract in place (on the marina). The Supreme Court decision stands."

The city signed the contract with the marina developer in September 2003 and filed eminent domain papers in the summer of 2004.

Chronicle correspondent Thayer Evans contributed to this report.

Houston Chronicle:


"Bill would allow private companies to raise up to $15 billion for highway projects with bonds exempt from federal income taxes. "

Congress may urge private toll roads

Seeks new way to fund projects

July 5, 2005

By Daniel Sorid, Reuters
© Copyright 2005 Globe Newspaper Company.

SAN FRANCISCO -- The next road you pay a toll to use could be privately owned.

Looking for ways to finance highway projects without hitting the public trough, Congress appears set to pass a proposal to encourage private ownership of new toll roads.

The provision, part of the highway spending bill now being worked out by a Senate and House conference committee, would allow private companies to raise up to $15 billion for highway projects with bonds exempt from federal income taxes.

The proposal has broad support in Washington, D.C., and in the business community, but the idea has incited grass-roots opposition in some states, with some saying the government -- not a profit-seeking company -- is the proper owner of the public's roads.

Toll road owners such as Spain's Cintra and Australia's Macquarie Infrastructure Group stand to benefit from the move to private infrastructure bonds because their tax-exempt status would keep interest rates and funding costs low.

The move would also bring lucrative fees to Wall Street banks and others for underwriting and trading tax-exempt debt.

''The time has come for this," Senator Jim Talent, a Missouri Republican who co-sponsored the proposal, said in a telephone interview. ''I think we have an excellent chance of the $15 billion bond issue coming out of conference."

Highway spending has traditionally been the government's responsibility, but many states faced with tight budgets have given corporations the right to build, operate, and maintain roads.

States have the right to regulate toll rates or limit profits but generally give operators latitude to run the roads as they see fit, which concerns some commuters.

Texas, California, and Virginia are at the forefront of the movement, one of the most significant changes to the interstate highway network since its 1950s inception.

Companies already own projects such as the Chicago Skyway Toll Bridge System and the 407 Express Toll Route that rings Toronto, and interest in privatizing more of the US highway infrastructure is increasing. But one bottleneck has been financing.

Jose Lopez de Fuentes, director of Cintra's US and Latin American operation, said private road builders currently face complex regulations governing the issuance of tax-exempt bonds.

The provision expected to emerge from Congress would help Cintra raise funds to finance such projects as a proposed $7 billion investment in the Texas highway system, he said.

''That's a pretty good deal any way you slice it," said Gaby Garcia, a spokeswoman with the Texas transportation department. ''They'll cover the table with $7 billion and say, 'We'll raise that money on our own without any help from you.' "

But Ellen Dannin, a law professor at Wayne State University in Detroit who has written on privatization, said private companies are not necessarily more efficient at running roads and their tolls amount to a regressive tax on highway building.

A better solution to public underfunding of the road system may be to roll back tax cuts, Dannin said.

''One of the things to ask yourself is, why doesn't the government have the money to spend on the infrastructure that we need?" she said.

The private-activity bonds will not require any outlay of public funds, but the government would pay for the plan in the form of reduced tax rolls, estimated at $500 million over six years.

In a highway bill that would cost $275 billion or more in that time, $500 million is a small price to pay for a financing mechanism that could pay for dozens of projects, said Karen Hedlund, a partner at Nossaman, Guthner, Knox & Elliott LLP's office in Arlington, Va., which advises state governments on transportation.

The Boston Globe:


© Copyright 2005 Globe Newspaper Company.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

"The Supreme Court is telling us to trust our elected officials. That's a nice idea in concept, but a bad one in practice."

Court stunts dreams of ownership

July 3, 2005

Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2005

My Inner Loop home is a block away from urban blight.

To the west are duplexes and fourplexes in various states of disrepair, home to renters with little means to improve their housing situation.

My home also is a block away from urban renewal.

To the east are well-maintained, owner-occupied single-family homes, a renovated two-story that sold for more than $250,000 and a new house built on a long-vacant lot.

My husband and I decided to invest our money, time and energy in our neighborhood, with an optimistic attitude.

The American Dream

The blight to the west was a growth opportunity, not a sign of encroaching decay.

The stability to the east was proof that the neighborhood could and would grow in value.

All we would have to do was update and maintain our home, pay our mortgage and taxes and keep the property as long as we wanted it.

That's the wealth-building strategy known as the American Dream. But now I'm not so sure if my neighbors and I — or any other American not living in a high-priced enclave or an upscale suburb — will be able to fulfill our dream.

The Supreme Court recently declined to change decades of established law that governments have the right to spur privately-financed economic growth by taking private property from unwilling sellers, as long as they pay just compensation for the property.

The court ruled, as it had before, that economic development is a legitimate "public use" that is protected by the Fifth Amendment's "eminent domain" clause, even if the property taken is not actually accessible to the public.

The five-person majority also said that despite earlier rulings that the removal of blight is a compelling reason for employing economic development as a public use, it's not a requirement.

As long as a municipality has "carefully formulated a development plan it believes will provide appreciable benefits to the community, including but not limited to new jobs and increased tax revenue," it can take whatever land it deems necessary to achieve this purpose, the court said.

Hot air for inflated dreams

The majority specifically rejected as too burdensome the dissenting opinions that state and local elected and appointed officials should be required to prove that the benefits promised in the economic development plans would be realized.

Bottom line, the Supreme Court again said it's up to state and local governments to decide what curbs, if any, they will place on their power to take private property.

"In a way this ruling is about civil rights because it interferes with your right to own and keep your property," said Wilhelmina Leigh, a senior research analyst with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies think tank in Washington. "It means you have to hope and trust in the goodness of other human beings that if you buy real estate that you will be allowed to keep it."

That's what worries me.

Developers almost always oversell their visions, and politicians almost always buy into those inflated plans.

What city doesn't want to revitalize downtown, create tourist attractions, lure or keep a sports team, or get a Fortune 500 company to open and expand offices?

In pursuit of these economic dreams, local politicians tend to sacrifice the financial stability of their most vulnerable constituents for public benefits that rarely trickle down to them.

A sordid past

In his dissenting opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas quoted statistics that have led sociologists to call urban renewal programs of the past "Negro removal" efforts:

"Of all the families displaced by urban renewal from 1949 through 1963, 63 percent of those whose race was known were nonwhite, and of these families, 56 percent of nonwhites and 38 percent of whites had incomes low enough to qualify for public housing, which, however, was seldom available to them."

And in the case that set the urban blight standard, over 97 percent of the people forced to move from their homes by the "slum clearance" project were black.

That same information was cited in the friend-of-the-court brief filed on behalf of the NAACP and AARP.

"They won't be taking lands that have million-dollar homes on them," said Jason Freier, an author of the brief and Atlanta-based attorney. "Eminent domain disproportionately impacts the working class, minorities and the elderly."

A matter of trust

By not setting standards for how municipalities determine what is blight and economic development, the Supreme Court is telling us to trust our elected officials.

That's a nice idea in concept, but a bad one in practice.

We, the people, need to make sure our voices drown out those of developers in the discussions about this ruling.

Bills in the Texas Legislature calling for a constitutional amendment prohibiting eminent domain from being used for the primary purpose of economic development are scheduled for hearings Tuesday and Wednesday.

If a bill passes in the special session, voters will then get their say in the Nov. 8 election.

Giving us a chance to voice our opinion on this issue through a vote is a good start.

Some specifics, please

The Legislature could also make sure that when economic development is cited as a secondary reason for taking land, governments:

•Only use it to reverse and retard blight.

•Define blight using statistically sound measurements.

•Submit economic development plans to citizens for comments before making commitments to developers.

•Include in economic development plans an analysis of how the people whose land is being taken will or will not benefit from the changes.

A majority of the Supreme Court may not have wanted to tell elected local officials what to do when they exercise their right to use eminent domain, but it is each citizen's duty to do just that.

Shannon Buggs has completed the financial planning certificate program at the University of Houston. She welcomes comments and suggestions but cannot offer specific advice about individual circumstances. Contact her at .

Houston Chronicle: