land ownership

Corporations Lobbying Governments to Seize Private Property?
eminent domain property rights

Mississippi Churning

Sometimes government and corporations team up to make an evil abuse of eminent domain.

Now it's happening again. This article, circulated by our freedom-loving friends at fear.org, excerpts information from a January 4 report in the Wall Street Journal.

The Constitution provides for government to seize private property for "public use" so long as "just compensation" is given. But can a state seize land on behalf of a private corporation in the name of economic development? Mississippi's efforts to uproot homeowners from their land so it can be used for a Nissan truck factory is only the latest example of how eminent domain is being abused for private and political gain.

In 2000, Mississippi went hog wild in outbidding neighboring states for the Nissan factory by offering a fat package of close to $300 million in corporate welfare subsidies and tax breaks. The deal included $80 million from the state to train Nissan's new workers. Also included was a pledge to "quick-take" the property of three families and give it to Nissan so it could build a parking lot and access road for the factory.

The 30 acres owned by the three families are at the southern tip of the 1,400-acre project. Ironically, the state has admitted it doesn't really need the land to ensure the factory is built. In September, James Burns Jr., executive director of the Mississippi Development Authority, gave the game away: "It's not that Nissan is going to leave if we don't get that land. What's important is the message it would send to other companies if we are unable to do what we said we would do." The next month the candid Mr. Burns was relieved of his position by Democratic Governor Ronnie Musgrove.

The state's willingness to bring out the bulldozers for no good reason appalls landowner Lonzo Archie. A welder whose family has owned the land at issue for 60 years, he told us: "We simply don't want to live elsewhere; these are where our roots are."

So far, the Mississippi Supreme Court has been sympathetic. It has halted seizure proceedings in every eminent domain case connected to the Nissan project while it considers the constitutional issues. The state constitution seems to limit the eminent domain power only to public-works projects.

Mr. Archie and the other families are being represented by the Institute for Justice, a libertarian law firm from Washington, D.C., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a civil rights group. "They call it an odd coupling," says Stephanie Parker-Weaver, the director of the Conference's state chapter. "But keeping your family's land is clearly also a civil right."

Mississippi argues that as a poor state it has the right to seek the "highest and best use" of land to create needed jobs. But if that's the case then the takings clause of the U.S. Constitution means nothing because a government can always find a "better" use for someone's private property.

Property owners are offered money when their land is condemned for private use, but the compensation is often far from just. Richard Epstein, a University of Chicago law professor, says government frequently lowballs its compensation offers. "You get frequent corruption as people pressure city halls to seize land on the cheap," he says. Last month a Mississippi jury awarded landowner John Smith $20,000 for a 1.6-acre parcel that had been seized for the Nissan plant.

That's more than double the state's best offer of $9,200.

After years of slumber, citizens and courts are waking up to the abuses eminent domain can create. In 2000, voters in Baltimore County, Maryland, repealed a law giving the county government expanded powers to use eminent domain for economic development. Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy abandoned plans to use eminent domain to redevelop his downtown after citizen protests.

The courts are also getting involved. Last year a Pennsylvania court held that Montgomery County couldn't transfer its sovereign eminent domain power to a developer. Even New Jersey's activist liberal Supreme Court has ruled that a state development agency was out of bounds in seizing property to provide additional parking for a casino owned by Donald Trump.

No one argues that struggling cities or states don't have a right to improve themselves through redevelopment. But care must be taken that that right doesn't extend to land seizures from which politically connected players stand to gain far more than the general public.


Eminent domain is a strong power, and it can be abused easily. Do you have ideas on how to keep the greedy away from other people's property? Tell your views to The Progress Report:

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