Saturday, February 03, 2001

Land-grab law used unfairly

        Eminent domain” sounds noble, as if the government were a wise king using his powers to benefit all. What a clever illusion. In reality, the king may be a big bully running roughshod over property rights. But his subjects often don't know any better, because the laws are vague and the king is a smooth talker.

        A case in Covington this month will test the king's skill. I'm hoping he slips up. The current trend — governments taking private property for dubious purposes — needs to stop.

        Eminent domain allows cities to purchase land against the owner's wishes. But there must be a compelling public use for the property: as the home of a sewer plant or a fire station, for instance.

What's "public use'?
               This is the sticking point. What does “public use” mean, and how far can the definition be stretched?

        In 1999, Cincinnati tried to seize the site of a CVS Pharmacy at Sixth and Race streets. But the “public use” didn't make sense: The city wanted to move a Walgreens into the site to resolve a glitch in its development plans.

        This time, the little guy fought back, and the city was forced to drop its effort.

        “Governments have gotten arrogant with their use of eminent domain,” says Cincinnati lawyer Bob Manley, who represented CVS against the city.

        “The people who work for government don't read the law. They just do it hoping they can get away with it.”

        In Covington last week, city commissioners voted to purchase land at Eighth and Washington streets. By law, the city would be required to pay a fair price to the owner, developer (and Corporex president) Bill Butler.

        But Mr. Butler had other plans for his property. It's now a public parking lot. He wants to donate it for a center to benefit the homeless.

Covington's stand
               City officials are against this idea.

        Although the Life Learning Center is a well-planned effort to end homelessness — not just feed and shelter people — city leaders don't care. They're tired of feeling surrounded by social service agencies.

        “We've got to take a stand and not let Covington become the social service capital of the world,” said Commissioner Alex Edmondson at last week's meeting, where he voted to begin eminent-domain proceedings.

        When we talked last week, Mr. Edmondson said his comments have been misunderstood. He isn't against social services, he says, but he does think they should be spread throughout the region.

        Furthermore, Covington really needs Mr. Butler's property for public parking, Mr. Edmondson says.

        This will be the stated motive from here on out. Every city needs parking. If Mr. Butler makes a fuss, Covington will claim parking as the compelling public use.

        But let's be real: If Bill Butler wanted to put a nice restaurant or upscale apartments on that site, would the city be leaping to buy his property?

        Mr. Edmondson says yes. Apparently, parking is that crucial and that unavailable anyplace else.

        I find this hard to believe.

        In reality, the good folks behind the Life Learning Center are being forced to pay for the city's lack of planning in its central business district.

        It's so un-American to seize property this way. Commissioners should take off their crowns and vote again.



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