Imminent Eminence

In today’s AJC, there’s an article (login) by Christopher Quinn attempting to defend the wildly unpopular and seemingly indefensible public policy of emminent domain. Quinn’s article doesn’t come down firmly on one side or the other, but it lays both sides of the argument on the table via specific examples, ultimately leaving it open at the end. I’m left rolling the debate over in my head since my town of residence, Smyrna, is used as an example advocating the rights for municipalities to acquire land through condemnation. (Back in the late eighties and early nineties, Smyrna undertook a massive citywide public/private redevelopment project, which has been hailed by nearly everyone as a huge success. To get it off the ground, however, there were several instances of property being acquired through condemnation.)

As a homeowner, I try to imagine how I would feel if I my local government was trying to displace me, and there was little if anything I could do. I can safely say I would be fairly enraged, especially if the ultimate goal was the economic prosperity of someone other than myself (i.e. real estate developers). If you can’t keep your government from taking your land (aka The American Dream), then what the hell good are any of the other freedoms we hold so dear? “They may be able to take my house, but thank god I’m free to stand on this street corner and scream aloud how annoyed I am about it.”

That said, I have always been a very large supporter of prioritizing the community. Individual rights are paramount, but what good are they if the community around you is crumbling into some sort of every-man-for-himself frontier town? Planning is important. A few years ago, I heard a very powerful speech by an environmental designer talked about green design in general, but with an emphasis towards the end on city planning. I heard it on the radio and I’ve Googled the hell out of it, but I can’t find a transcript or an audio link anywhere. It would help if I could remember the speaker’s name. The one line I’ll never forget was something to the effect of, “If the children don’t love the city, then they will hate the city. And if the children hate the city, then they will kill the city.” (If anyone is familiar with this speech/lecture, I’d love to hear it again.) UPDATE: Greg Mohler found the link to the speech. Go read. Do it.

I’ve been searching my various idealogies, hoping to find a concise answer to the question, “Where is the line?” I want to be able to say, “Eminent domain is fine as long as,” or, “Eminent domain is always wrong except when,” but every time I try to finish either statement, I end up with a list of exceptions so long the original statement is irrelevant and the entire debate is broken wide open again. I usually come down on the side of the community. As the population on this planet continues to grow, community planning becomes crucial to the successful advancement of civilization, plain and simple. If the condemnation of one acre of land is the lynchpin in a project that will save a community, then I am for it. But that doesn’t mean, say, annexing a farm with the intent of building a privately owned resort for highly-subjective “much needed” economic growth.

Although you’d be hard pressed to find someone on the street who openly supports eminent domain, if people hate it so much, why haven’t we elected people who vow to pass legislation removing eminent domain from our books? Quinn’s article cites Sen. Jeff Chapman (R-Brunswick) who is heading a senate committee currently reviewing the laws and “promises to do away with eminent domain for economic development.” But where does community development stop and economic development start, and vice versa? To answer my question as to where the line exists, I don’t think there is a line. Rather, I think there is a continuum upon which the justified demand for quality, vibrant, thriving, happy communities must be balanced with individual freedoms and protection from overtly political/economic interests. It’s a balance made difficult by infinite variables that must be freshly assessed with each new situation.

3 Comments so far

  1. Greg Mohler (unregistered) on September 27th, 2005 @ 1:13 pm

    A lot of food for thought, there; thanks. Good quote, too. It’s not quite a transcript, but Google gave me this:

    “…I’d like to finish by telling a story from Curitiba, Brazil. Curitiba is an amazing place. It has grown from 6,000 people to two and a half million people in the last 20 years. With a growth rate not unheard of here in China, it has multiplied its green space by a factor of 50. It has found ways to provide all of its people, especially its poor, with safe, nutritious organic food from the city’s farms. It has built a public transportation system that is second to none in the world. In fact, they make their busses at their own factories. And when they built a library for the city, instead of building a central building, the Mayor decided to put little libraries all over the city, so that all the children could get to the library by walking for no more than twelve minutes. If a child was too poor to buy books, she could collect garbage on her way to the library, recycle it and get paid in all the books she ever needed for school. Every child was given access to the World Wide Web where they can communicate for free and research subjects of interest internationally. Some of the citizens complained that children from outside the city were coming to use the libraries. They said the parents of these children weren’t part of the city and did not pay taxes. When the mayor heard this, he said, “When we begin to love the children, we must love all of the children. And if the city does not love these children too, then these children will grow up hating the city. And if these children hate the city, they will destroy the city.”

  2. Tony (unregistered) on September 27th, 2005 @ 2:12 pm

    Greg, THAT’S IT! Thanks for tracking down that link. My, uh, Google must be broken or, uh, something.

  3. j.verhine (unregistered) on September 28th, 2005 @ 12:29 pm

    I’m a victim of eminent domain. I bought a condo in Buckhead a year ago. New developers are looking to buy us out, but they only have to offer a number that is just fair enough – if we disagree to sell – we get taken to court, where that barely fair number will be thrown on us. I feel helpless. This is real, people.

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