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The eminent domain ruling

June 28, 2005

When he was writing the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, Founding Father John Adams inserted the phrase, "a government of laws, and not of men."

But judging from the last week's eminent domain ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, whether or not your house is seized for a "public purpose" will now depend less on the letter of the law and more on the promises of men.

Congress must right this wrong, or every time there is a proposal to redevelop existing residences in a way that yields more tax revenue and/or jobs, homeowners' rights will be shoved aside.

The decision came as a result of the move by officials of the City of New London, Conn., who in 2000 decided to take existing homes for a new research park for Pfizer Inc., a pharmaceutical company.

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Eminent domain has been used sparingly in this region, usually only when the owner of a dilapidated property sits on it and does not either maintain or redevelop it. What was proposed in New London is different; there officials decided that the rights of existing homeowners were trumped by the need for new jobs and additional tax revenue.

In Saturday's Herald-Mail, local officials in Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia said they would proceed cautiously, if at all, on the use of the new power to condemn property.

It would be nice to take them at their word, but what will happen when there's a proposal to replace existing homes with a larger generator of tax revenues?

We would like to see existing officials and future candidates pledge to use eminent domain only for those things that are bona fide public needs, such as fire stations, sewer plants and the like.

Then it will be up to Congress to clarify the law, so that those property owners whose dwellings yield less tax revenue than officials want aren't tossed out in the street.

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