By Jessica Peck Corry, INDEPENDENCE INSTITUTE
Four years have passed since that heated summer of 2005 when the U.S. Supreme Court shocked our national conscience by declaring that government can forcibly condemn a family’s home simply to make way for a more lucrative private development. While Colorado lawmakers responded by banning such a practice here, new threats to property ownership emerge every day.
Property rights are the nation’s least sexy — and most often forgotten — civil right. As Americans, we take for granted that when we purchase a home, no one can take it from us, except in rare exceptions based on overwhelming proof of public need. But in too many cases, this simply isn’t true.
Put simply, eminent domain, or the government’s taking of private property for a public use, is allowed under the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but only upon just compensation being provided to the displaced property owner. Unfortunately, this clear mandate has been chipped away at through cases over the last half-century, culminated in Kelo v. New London, a case out of Connecticut, where the government attempted to bulldoze a series of homes to make way for a private pharmaceutical giant’s new headquarters. Until the very end, the case’s lead plaintiff, Suzette Kelo, fought tirelessly to save her little pink cottage in New London’s blue collar Fort Trumble neighborhood.
While the final outcome was not in Kelo’s favor, legislatures across the nation, including Colorado, subsequently voted to prohibit eminent domain for economic development purposes like those upheld in the case. In an ideal world, it could be argued that one woman’s sacrifice spared countless Americans from a similar fate.
Not an ideal world
But, of course, we don’t live in an ideal world. Over the past four years, southern Colorado has played host to a series of its own property rights battles. In 2006, thousands of families descended upon the state Capitol in Denver to successfully curb an effort to condemn thousands of properties to make way for a proposed private toll road known as “Super Slab.” Momentum behind this movement helped elect Marsha Looper, a Calhan Republican, to the state House.
Southern Colorado is also host to the ongoing debate over whether the military should be permitted to take working ranches outside Trinidad to make way for expanded military training. This process is particularly painful as it pits against each other two of America’s greatest symbols of our fighting spirit — the western cowboy and the American soldier.
And of equal importance: while the downturned economy has meant that government has less of our hard-earned tax dollars to use toward land redevelopment experiments, it also means that property owners targeted for condemnation face an even greater uphill battle. In at least a few cases coming out of Denver’s suburbs, property owners being moved out to make way for the Regional Transportation District’s light rail expansion have been offered compensation lower than the assessed value or mortgaged value of their properties.
While RTD can claim that current real estate realities affect almost all property owners adversely, those targeted with eminent domain have lost the option to wait out the downturn and recoup the full investment value of their properties.
Property rights champions
During a recent Colorado Springs visit, I was encouraged by the response I received from three of the region’s most committed policy makers, Sen. Bill Cadman and Rep. Kent Lambert, and retired Senate Republican leader Andy McElhany. In addition, all Coloradans have a property rights champion in state Rep. Corry Gardner, a Yuma Republican, who has continuously taken on special interests to protect against unjust condemnation.
As these legislators spend these next several months developing their policy agendas for the 2010 session, we can only hope property rights don’t take a back seat to other pressing economic needs. After all, and even as real estate prices continue to slump in the short term, home ownership remains the single most important tool we have to promote the ability of citizens to forge their own path toward long-term financial independence and sustainability. Inevitably, it is too often poor, elderly, and minority communities victimized by abusive condemnation.
The most dangerous threat today comes from our courts, including the Colorado Supreme Court, which took a serious swipe at property rights last summer by ruling that government can condemn property — even if outside its own jurisdiction — for open space purposes. The decision has already emboldened local governments to more aggressively threaten condemnation for such purposes.
Just imagine if instead the court had ruled that local governments could exempt themselves from civil rights statutes prohibiting race and gender discrimination, freeing governments to use taxpayer dollars to promote racially segregated lunch counters or classrooms. People would be justly rioting in the streets.
Colorado property owners concerned about their fate must take a stand. If one woman in a little pink cottage was able to force the entire nation to wake up to property rights abuses, so can you.
The author directs the Property Rights Project at the Independence Institute, a Golden-based libertarian think tank. The views expressed in this guest column are those of the Independence Institute and not necessarily those of the Denver Daily News. Respond to email@example.com.
Distributed by Colorado Capitol Reporters