Some Things Surprise Me; Some Things Don’t
Just in case you didn’t know, Missouri is among the worst states in the country when it comes to eminent domain abuse. The Missouri Supreme Court recently decided to hear arguments in City of Arnold v. Tourkakis, which will likely determine whether the state Constitution presents any barrier whatsoever against government officials who would trade their citizens’ constitutional liberties for private developers’ promises of tax revenue.
Several weeks ago, the Show-Me Institute filed a brief in that case to remind the Court that property rights are at the very heart of the Missouri Constitution, despite the disregard they have been shown by recent court decisions. The brief also highlighted the fact that during the last five years, non-charter cities have threatened at least 1,500 properties with eminent domain, more than three times the number of properties threatened across the entire state from 1999-2002.
Thanks to Bill McClellan’s fantastic work in recent weeks, readers of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch have been getting a glimpse of what life is like for the thousands upon thousands of Americans whose homes, businesses, and houses of worship are threatened with eminent domain. Valley Park, a non-charter city in the St. Louis area, has for months been considering the creation of a redevelopment corporation that would have the authority to take property from some of the city’s current citizens and hand it over to new owners that the city would prefer. McClellan has done an excellent job of capturing the constant struggle of the threatened owners to make their voices heard and hold on to what rightfully belongs to them in the face of city officials who would demand the sacrifice of their citizens’ property rights on the altar of "redevelopment."
In a stunning turn of events, however, the regular protests of the property owners appears to have finally made an impact on the city’s officials. At its last meeting, the Board of Aldermen not only announced that it would no longer seek the creation of the redevelopment corporation, but that it would also pass a city ordinance banning the use of eminent domain for private development!
It is very important to note that Valley Park residents are still potentially at risk, even after the passage of this new provision. It doesn’t take much to change the law again, and, at any rate, cities frequently say they are using eminent domain to clear "blighted" areas rather than to promote economic development. But it is heartening to see at least a step in the right direction. Hopefully, this will allow that city’s property owners to sleep a little easier.
As for things that don’t surprise me … In 2006, the General Assembly modified its eminent domain laws somewhat to require that a finding of "blight" must assess properties on a "parcel-by-parcel" basis, rather than using the broad snapshot of an area that had previously enabled findings of "blight." Under this new provision, an area may only be declared "blighted" if a preponderance (more than half) of the area is determined to be blighted. This change was exceptionally weak, because cities still have extreme discretion to decide what constitutes "blight" meaning they could rig the findings by setting their own standards but it at least imposed a restriction on the use of eminent domain that would presumably add some protection to well-kept neighborhoods.
On Tuesday, however, a three-judge panel in the Missouri Court of Appeals gutted even this meager level of protection. An ordinary reading of the new law suggests that those evaluating targeted areas must determine the number of properties in an area that meet the definition of "blight," and that they may only use eminent domain if more than half of those properties are determined to be "blighted." The judges, however, held that the law merely requires surveyors to look really closely at an area before stamping it with a "blight" label. Where the law requires a "preponderance" of the area to be blighted, in practice it just means "to the court’s satisfaction." Oh, and it’s perfectly acceptable for the surveyors to rely on records from 1994 to determine whether an area should be considered "blighted" in 2007.
If Missourians are ever to be truly assured that their homes, businesses, and houses of worship cannot be taken from them for someone else’s benefit, someone and perhaps a large number of people must make a stand for the proper enforcement of constitutional protections. Thus far, the General Assembly has failed to do so. Despite some small successes, dozens of cities have failed to do so. And, most importantly, the courts have failed to do so. Valley Park’s citizens have learned a lesson that should be taken to heart across the state: Eternal vigilance truly is the price of liberty.