In the most bizarre eminent domain case in years, the Seattle City Council has decided to seize a 103-year old woman’s parking lot so the city can use the site for its own parking lot.
“The city of Seattle is using eminent domain to seize a parking lot, so they can use it as a parking lot,” Glen Morgan of the Freedom Foundation, a think-tank, noted.
The case demonstrates how warped the use of eminent domain has become, he said.
The city council voted unanimously to seize a waterfront parking lot owned by Myrtle Woldson of Spokane, using taxpayers’ money to pay for it. The lot is being seized as part of a project to replace an aging viaduct and to build a tunnel.
What’s truly bizarre is that the parking lot is not actually part of the tunnel project. Woldson’s lot is not required for tunnel or roads leading to it. Instead it’s part of a separate scheme to ease congestion in the area by creating public parking lots – because the city’s project is destroying some of the existing public parking. To sum it up: Eminent domain is being used to seize something that already exists in order to provide a service a private business is already providing: parking.
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“It makes no fiscal sense to me to have the city condemn a parking lot to create more parking,” Gary Beck told a local newspaper. Beck is president of Republic Parking Northwest, the company that operates the lot for Woldson.
The Supreme Court and eminent domain
The idea behind the controversial doctrine known as eminent domain is to give government the right to take private property for supposedly legitimate public uses. Traditionally, it was used to take private property for, say, public roads, military bases and public transportation systems.
The definition was expanded by the notorious case of Kelo v. City of New London in 2005. In that case the city of New London, Connecticut, wanted to seize the home of Susette Kelo and turn it over to a private developer. The developer wanted to build a new office building to serve as a corporate headquarters.
The US Supreme Court ruled, 5-4, that government has the right to use eminent domain to seize property for the purpose of economic development. The city was trying to keep the headquarters of Pfizer, a large pharmaceutical manufacturer, in New London. The frightening results of this case were ably described by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in her dissenting opinion.
“Any property may now be taken for the benefit of another private party, but the fallout will not be random,” O’Connor wrote. “The beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development corporations. As for the victims, the government now has license to transfer property from those with fewer resources to those with more. The Founders cannot have intended this perverse result
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Ironically enough, the Pfizer office building Susette Kelo’s family home was seized to make way for was never built. Pfizer eventually moved its headquarters and the jobs the city fathers wanted to attract to Midtown Manhattan.
“Something has gone seriously awry with this Court’s interpretation of the Constitution,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote. “Though citizens are safe from the government in their homes, the homes themselves are not.”