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Too eminent

| July 20, 2005 12:00 AM

A recent Supreme Court ruling has raised the hackles of property owners nationwide, and rightfully so.

The U.S. high court has seemingly cleared the way for governments to use the condemnation tool on private property for private development. The case stemmed from a New London, Conn., case in which multiple-family homes and single-family homes will be razed to put in a more attractive development — hotels and health spas.

Other cases, especially in inner cities, show that local governments are using the right of eminent domain to level blocks and blocks of rundown homes to build new structures thus revitalizing those areas.

Montana already has a law on the books prohibiting the use of eminent domain for economic development reasons. Not suprisingly. Out here in the West, condemnation, government seizure of land, has always been "fighting words." In some ways the West was built by and on those very battles. It's never been very pretty.

It becomes less pretty when private development is allowed to use such a tool to further its means. The expansion westward of the railroad comes to mind. But when we start tearing down the individual's home because someone has a better idea of what the land should look like . . .

The use of eminent domain is controversial under any circumstance, and probably is most often used for road or highway construction — especially involving expansion of existing right-of-ways. Even in those cases, government should tread lightly, and carefully, with respect for the individual's property right.

It could also be argued that individuals have a responsibility to maintain property at a certain level of aesthetic and economic worth out of respect for their neighbors and communities. This way of thinking borders on the edge of planning and zoning and raising people's hackles even more.

In regard to the recent Supreme Court ruling, one New Jersey property rights activist put it quite well by saying that government and developers have forgotten a key word. They remember development and redevelopment but forget rehabilitation, she said. — Roger Morris