News: CJ Exclusives

Study: Seizing Property is Easy

Report highlights 10 ways eminent domain can be abused

Last year’s landmark Kelo decision by the U.S. Supreme Court opened people’s eyes about government taking property for economic development. A new John Locke Foundation Spotlight report shows many other ways that state and local governments can prey on private property.

The problems with government takings of private property extend beyond the notorious “economic development takings” allowed under Kelo v. City of New London, said report author Daren Bakst, legal and regulatory policy analyst for the foundation. That’s why North Carolinians need comprehensive laws now to prevent abuse of eminent domain, he said.

Bakst’s report highlighted 10 ways governments abuse eminent domain to take private property. For example, he said, planners could use clever map drawing to take pristine property in a “blighted area.” Also, thanks to a 1998 N.C. appeals court ruling, the government doesn’t have to tell the landowner why his property was seized while other, nearby property was left undisturbed.

“All the law requires is for two-thirds of the area to be blighted,” Bakst said. “So desirable properties near blighted properties are easy pickings.”

If that’s not easy enough, Bakst said, North Carolina law allows government to seize property if the state forecasts that the property will become blighted or will cause economic harm.

“Being able to take property supposedly to avoid future problems essentially allows governments to take whatever property they want,” Bakst said.

Governments can also use the threat of taking property to push homeowners into accepting unfair terms of sale, Bakst said.

“Once a government wishes to seize someone’s property, it has all the advantages,” Bakst said. “The deck is so stacked against the homeowner that the threat of seizure if the owner refuses to sell doesn’t even need to be legal. It can be a bluff.”

State law could also lead to governments taking property under false pretenses. A city could seize property for a public project that falls through and not have to give the property back to the original owner, Bakst said. They could demolish the property and lease it to another — as the Piedmont Triad Airport Authority did for FedEx.

Governments could seize property even after the original public-use justification for the taking is over, Bakst said. “The Triangle Transit Authority (TTA) continues to seize private property for a light rail system when that proposal is practically dead,” Bakst said.

“State law does a poor job of protecting North Carolinians from eminent domain abuse,” Bakst said. “The solution to this intrusion against a basic human right is an explicit and detailed amendment to the North Carolina Constitution.”