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A home is a home is a . . . shopping mall?

June 26, 2005

Imagine this: Your home really isn't your home.

Sure, you make the mortgage payments, pay the taxes and the insurance, mow the lawn, put on a new roof, maybe plant some flowers. You have a deed and, even if there is a lien attached, as long as you don't default on the payments, it's your home.

Or is it?

With Thursday's 5-4 Supreme Court decision, local governments may raze people's homes and businesses for private development.

Government long has had the right to take private property by eminent domain for public projects such as roads or schools or bridges, or to get rid of blighted areas.

But this is a whole new ballgame: Your property might be your property only as long as nobody else wants it.

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Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote in dissent that with the court's decision, "The specter of condemnation hangs over all property. ... Nothing is to prevent the state from replacing any Motel 6 with a Ritz-Carlton, any home with a shopping mall, or any farm with a factory."

So if a local government decides, for instance, that 10 houses owned by middle-income people in a rural area just aren't boosting the tax base as much as would 200 upscale houses on the same land, if you're one of those middle-income homeowners, you might as well get out of the way of the bulldozers.

The idea here is that more lucrative properties bring more money into government coffers. That is somehow construed into meaning it would be for the common good.

There might be some who would suggest that when one individual's rights are trampled upon, everybody's rights are at risk. If my neighbor's property is taken today, mine can be seized tomorrow and yours the next day. Where's the common good in that?

Of course, property owners whose homes are about to be reduced to rubble would be entitled to just compensation, but that really isn't the point if you don't want to sell.

The point is that people should be able to feel secure that the property they own won't be taken from them by force just so a government can fill its coffers and a developer his or her pockets.

The point is that even in our throwaway society, a house is more than bricks and mortar to many people. In our area, some people still live in the houses where their parents and grandparents lived out their days.

Houses can be full of memories, of a lifetime spent with a spouse, of toddlers playing in the yard, of birthday parties, deaths and of the day-to-day activities that add up to a lifetime. They are not commodities to be tossed aside if a government body decides the land on which they stand would be more profitable put to some other use.

We can only hope that government officials who now will have more flexibility to seize property will refrain from doing so.

Most local government officials asked for comment by The Herald-Mail indicated they did not favor the idea of taking property for private development purposes.

Even so, it wouldn't hurt to make our opinions on the matter clear, in big enough numbers that the phrase "common good" takes on a whole new meaning.

If The Herald-Mail online poll is any indication, people are doing just that.

The poll question that ran in Friday's Morning Herald and Daily Mail asked: "Should local government be allowed to take homes and businesses through eminent domain for the purpose of building office complexes, shopping centers or other similar private endeavors?"

Of the 180 responses received as of 10:20 p.m. Saturday, 174 - or 97 percent - of the responders, said no, and six - or 3 percent - said yes.

That just might say it all.

Linda Duffield is associate editor of The Herald-Mail. She may be reached at 301-791-7591 or by e-mail at lindad@herald-mail.com.

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