[Note: This is part of a series.]
There was an odd little story in USA Today on Sunday, covering the raft of so-called “property rights” initiatives on the November ballot throughout the Western U.S.
I say odd, because it almost completely misses the point.
As the story notes, a lot of people are pretty exercised about a 2005 US Supreme Court decision in the case of Kelo vs. New London, which held that it was perfectly constitutional for a state or local government to condemn private property and hand it over to another private party—a trick that’s been used off and on, sometimes in the name of revitalizing blighted urban neighborhoods, but other times with some seedy and distateful results (see, e.g., the Texas Ranger’s baseball stadium).
The western states’ initiatives are riding a wave of opposition to Kelo, which seems to have ticked off people across the political spectrum. And that’s the story that USA Today focused on.
But Kelo isn’t the real story in these ballot measures. It just isn’t.
You see, all but one of the ballot measures contains two separate parts: one that addresses Kelo abuses; and a second, essentially unrelated part that targets planning, zoning, and similar efforts that communities use to plan for the future, maintain their quality of life, and protect residents’ property values. (Read more on the effects of these initiatives here.)
Now I’m no expert, but it seems to me that if the anti-Kelo portions of these initiatives were to pass, not a whole lot would change. Sure, there are a lot of people upset about the Kelo decision and its potential for abuse. Perhaps they’re right to be upset. But for all the fuss, Kelo-style eminent domain cases are pretty rare. And more to the point, in some of the states where voters will weigh in on eminent domain, Kelo-style excesses are already illegal: state legislators have already voted to curtail them.
But if the anti-planning portions pass, the changes would be pretty profound. Overnight, it would become virtually impossible for communities, both rural and urban, to adopt new planning and zoning ordinances; changing or updating zoning plans could trigger big payouts to affected landowners. Of course, somepeople could stand to make a bundle under that sort of scheme; but while there would certainly be a few winners, there would be far more losers.
To me, the anti-Kelo provisions of these initiatives are little more than a Trojan horse—a showy exterior designed to attract attention and votes.
The real story is the hidden anti-planning payload. And USA Today missed the story. They fell for the Trojan horse.
USA Today missed the story. They fell for the Trojan horse.Or not.But you have to admire the performance and stage-managing that the pro-property rights organizations have pulled off here. They’ve used Kelo to push their agenda and its working. Anyway, I saw another presentation by the Private Property Rights (PPR) folks last night. They had no numbers, no figures, no maps, they (surprisingly) couldn’t even provide handouts for people to follow along and make notes, no counters to opponents’ cost estimates, nothing. Not one number.All they had was emotional appeals and – to my mind – a presentation based on flimflam and liberal use of the word ‘unfair’. There are legitimate causes for grievance. But if all the PPR folks with a grievance can muster is flimflam to explain their remedy, then you have to wonder to what they are hitching their wagon. I happen to think it’s OK for the societal pendulum to swing back and forth while we search for an answer, but 933 swings the pendulum so far it’s gone over the top and is spinning at a measurable RPM.