Our Opinion: A scary decision

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 25, 2005

A Thursday Supreme Court decision could have a big impact on Suffolk property owners. The court ruled in a 5-4 decision that local governments may seize people’s homes and businesses against their will for private developments. The Associated Press reported that the decision has been &uot;anxiously awaited in communities where economic growth is at war with individual property rights.&uot;

Such battles have raged in Suffolk since the adoption of the Unified Development Ordinance in 1998.

What the decision means, in effect, is that if some big developer wanted to build something, say, near the Hilton on the waterfront, the city could simply swoop in and seize McDonald’s, the car wash, gas station, and other businesses that detract from the beauty of the city’s downtown waterfront.

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The same with anyone’s home that might get in the way of a possible condominium development downtown or even those surrounding the Fairgrounds project.

These sound like extreme situations to be sure, but when one considers the pace of development going on here, such a scenario is not beyond the realm of possibility.

Local governments already had the authority to exercise eminent domain for purposes of public projects – such as parks or schools. The court’s liberal block – Stevens, Beyer, Ginsberg, Souter and Kennedy – ruled in effect that economic development which creates jobs and tax revenues, qualifies as the public good.

That’s a stretch and we agree with Justice Sandra Day O’Conner who slammed the decision as handing &uot;disproportionate influence and power&uot; to the well-heeled in America.

According to the Associated Press, O’Connor argued that cities should not have unlimited authority to uproot families, even if they are provided compensation, simply to accommodate wealthy developers.

&uot;Any property may now be taken for the benefit of another private party, but the fallout from this decision will not be random,&uot; she wrote. &uot;The beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms.&uot;

That’s a scary thought and a bad decision by the court.