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Concern is not extremism

Posted: September 28, 2008 7:35 p.m.
Updated: November 30, 2008 5:00 a.m.
 

When asked whether Santa Clarita would employ eminent domain for the seizure of private residential property as a means of furthering the Newhall Redevelopment Project, Paul Brotzman expressly stated that the city "doesn't have the legal authority to acquire private property."

Clarifying further, Brotzman specified that only "public infrastructure purposes" such as bridges would legally allow a local government to seize private residential property.

With that, he seemingly closed the door on City Hall being able to lawfully secure any private residential property for the sake of erecting the two new parking garages or any other facet of the Newhall Redevelopment Project.

But if only eminent domain was truly interpreted so quickly and precisely - bureaucratic assurances notwithstanding.

In June 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court's committed an unprecedented subversion of eminent domain. The apparent arbiter of American consciousness decided against the classical interpretation of the Fifth Amendment clause "nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation."

Centering on the legal interpretation of the phrase "public use" in Kelo v. City of New London, the Supreme Court ruled that local governments can seize private residential property for "public use" projects like a luxury hotel or office space. Sounds even less "public use" than, say, parking garages. Ultimately, Brotzman's words lack legal authority.

In 2000, the Powers That Be of New London, Conn. launched a plan to resurrect the economy of - and generally transform - their depressed coastal city. Enticed by a $300 million research facility owned by Pfizer pharmaceutical company and eager to enlarge their tax base, city officials set out to surround Pfizer's investment with new condominium housing, a riverfront park, increased office space and a luxury hotel.

The blueprints called for all to be built in a declining neighborhood called Fort Trumbull, largely occupied by middle-class homeowners.

Once the city condemned the property in 2000, residents rebelled and actually refused to accept the city's "just compensation" for their apparently expendable homes and plans. Amidst high controversy, Fort Trumbull's residents eventually took the matter to the Supreme Court. With a 5-4 vote, Justice John Paul Stevens spoke for the majority and said New London's "redevelopment" proposal was "carefully formulated" by city officials adept at "discerning local public needs," and consequently, "entitled to our deference."

Deference for an inverted Robin Hood-ism, that is. Writing for the dissenting four justices, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor aptly summarized what that decision meant for homeowners nationwide: "All private property is now vulnerable to being taken and transferred to another private owner, so long as it might be upgraded ... government now has license to transfer property from those with fewer resources to those with more. The Founders cannot have intended this perverse result."

There are parallels between the New London proposal and the Newhall Redevelopment Project. Neither proposal condenses around traditionally understood "public use" projects such as a dam or a road. In New London, "public use" meant expanded office space. In Newhall, "use" means new parking garages and a new library. And both campaigns essentially subsist "under the banner of economic development."

Couple those crucial parallels with the dangerous precedent in New London and doubt is cast on the "public infrastructure purposes" of local government. However noble, care and discretion are rarely extremist tactics when the wants of government are astir.

Andre Hollings is a Santa Clarita resident. His column reflects his own views, not necessarily those of The Signal.

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