editorial (2006-10)

Pre-eminent Domain

It’s the voters who must decide against demagoguery

Pre-eminent Domain

The scare tactics that have been adopted by state Rep. Stacey Campfield, the Knoxville Republican, in his approach to the question of eminent domain have seemingly driven the freshman legislator to distraction and provoked the leadership of the House of Representatives to wish him an early exit from the Legislature.

Campfield has described the risk of a “land grab” under eminent domain, indicating that local governments pose a threat to property rights. His feverish response was to call for a 120-day moratorium on all exercises of eminent domain until state lawmakers have the chance to adopt some sort of new limiting legislation, blocking the seizure of private property for public purposes.

He backed away from that proposal when it became evident that the votes were not there to support such a moratorium, but he insists that the issue is the no. 1 priority in the current legislative term. Establishing such a high priority to counter a non-existent threat would seem the height of demagoguery, especially with the assurances he and his colleagues—if many of them are willing to call themselves colleagues—have received from Knoxville’s Mayor Bill Haslam that there are no cases of eminent domain imminent in Knoxville and that the practice has not been misused or abused in the city. Likely, Mike Ragsdale, the Knox County mayor, would concur with Haslam’s assurances.

But when an eager, unknowledgeable newcomer to the political scene can be led astray by a few fear-mongers, including the veteran lawmaker, Frank Nicely, R-Strawberry Plains, and a couple of paranoid owners of blighted property, a fiasco is in the making.

The whole program of playing on the fears of property owners was introduced nationally in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s split decision nearly a year ago to uphold a Connecticut municipality’s right to condemn under-utilized urban properties to allow for economic redevelopment, in that instance a $270 million pharmaceutical research facility.

Without examining the merits of the so-called Kelo decision, it is still essential to consider that the concept of eminent domain is a long-standing principle of government, and that its uses are sometimes necessary to achieve the

Local office-holders are elected by their constituents to protect private property rights and promote the public good, and those two roles may occasionally collide. Not often, but sometimes that happens, and it is the responsibility of those elected officials to weigh the conflicting principles and to make a determination on whether, or how, to proceed. If the officials are obviously guilty of abusing their authority over eminent domain, the voters will take note and, probably, turn them out of office.

It is not as if the governments who use eminent domain confiscate property without paying at least what is decided to be fair market value to the owner or owners, who have a right to appeal the appraisal. The process insures that abuses are difficult to perpetrate, and that’s as it should be.

It is clear under U.S. and Tennessee law that no one is to be deprived of their property without adequate compensation and judicial recourse, if necessary. Governments bend over backward to comply with those laws, often arranging relocation assistance to the persons whose property is condemned. Yet it is also often true that emotional attachment to property cannot be compensated for to the satisfaction of the people to be displaced.

So the demagogues can easily line up to play on that emotion and arouse the fears of other citizens, based on such raw feelings as the idea that all private property may be under some sort of government threat.

A lot of that has gone on in the wake of the Kelo decision, but none seems more silly, or dangerous, on its face, than those cries of wolf raised by Rep. Campfield and his little nest of allies.

There will be occasions, as there have been in the past, here and elsewhere, where the clarity of public purpose demonstrates that eminent domain should be exercised. That could become clear for reasons of economic necessity, public safety, national security, job promotion, or any number of other sound purposes, including ridding of the community of blighted property. It should never be exercised lightly, and given the cautious thought that public officials will inevitably accord each such situation under the light of public scrutiny, it won’t be arbitrarily or capriciously abused. If it were, it would bring on unintended and perhaps dire consequences to those who abuse it.

Ignoring those checks and arousing irrational sentiment to attempt to erect impossible barriers to the correct uses of eminent domain is the province of demagogues, and if Rep. Campfield doesn’t stop tilting at such legislative windmills, he ought to be retired to private life. From the look of the opposition now being raised to his reelection, he may have gone too far south already in pursuit of early retirement.