Thursday, December 29, 2005

GUEST POST -- A plan that's rife with abuse

Posted by Craig Westover | 1:41 PM |  

This column orignally appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

by Lee McGrath
Institute for Justice, Minnesota Chapter

In its recent editorial "Eminent domain fears are exaggerated" (Star Tribune, Dec. 10) this newspaper tried to persuade Minnesotans to trust tax-hungry governments and land-hungry developers when it comes to the future of their homes, farms and small businesses. If you want to know whether this is good advice, ask Cha Fong Lee.

Lee planned to redevelop his thriving Hmong-American Shopping Mall in Brooklyn Center into a "Little Asia," with town homes, retail space and an open-air celebration area. To do so, Lee sought to work with the city's Economic Development Authority in 2002.

Not only did Brooklyn Center refuse, it took his property last April using eminent domain. And the city now plans to let another developer build a similar project on Lee's former property.

Like many Hmong immigrants, Lee saw combat against the North Vietnamese. He said, "I fought for America because the U.S. government told me the Communists would not respect my rights." After the war, he came to this country to fulfill the American Dream. But a big part of the dream has evaded Lee because Brooklyn Center took his property.

"Nearly 35 years ago, I fought for people's rights to keep what is theirs," Lee said. "Brooklyn Center ignored my rights and took my property. I can't tell you how betrayed I feel."

Minneapolis, St. Paul, New Brighton, St. Louis Park, Richfield and others also have used eminent domain to rain favors on the politically connected and crowded out what might have been real private development. And the Hmong community is not alone in having property taken.

The NAACP has documented that the history of eminent domain is rife with abuse specifically targeting minority neighborhoods. The displacement of African-Americans and urban renewal projects were so intertwined that "urban renewal" projects in the 1950s and 1960s were referred to as "Negro removal." One scholar estimated that 1,600 African-American neighborhoods were destroyed by such takings.

Minorities aren't the only people subject to eminent-domain abuse. Earlier this year, St. Paul threatened to take the land of 79-year-old Olive Taylor, a white woman with a modest house near Loeb Lake. Her home was saved when her story was brought to light and the private developer changed his mind.

No one is safe from eminent-domain abuse. Minneapolis used its powers of eminent domain in 2001 to condemn two small businesses at 50th and France. To do so, the city declared the area "blighted." It's outrageous that state law lets Minneapolis declare blighted a fine neighborhood filled with tony shops. If 50th and France is blighted, so must be the entire state of Minnesota.

Cities know that most property owners don't have the resources to defend their homes, farms or small businesses from eminent-domain takings.

As the Star Tribune stated, property owners threatened by cities with eminent domain often sell without a fight because of the high cost of lawyers. Such takings don't go through the complete condemnation process and don't show up in the Minnesota League of Cities' dubious statistics the newspaper cited. (The league's statistics don't even include Richfield's forcing the sale of 70 homes to benefit the Best Buy Corp.)

In its decision in Kelo vs. City of New London, the U.S. Supreme Court announced that cities can take land for economic development. But the court also invited residents in Minnesota and elsewhere to reform their states' eminent-domain laws. Minnesotans across the economic, ethnic and political spectrum are demanding that the Legislature reform Minnesota's eminent-domain laws in the coming session.

Cha Fong Lee wants to be part of the solution and change the state's bad eminent-domain laws. It is just another of his many battles for freedom.

Lee McGrath is executive director of the Institute for Justice, Minnesota Chapter.

Category: Guest Post, Eminent Domain, Institute For Justice