What is Eminent Domain?
In Missouri, eminent domain gives the government the power to take your property, even if you don’t want to sell. But under the Fifth Amendment, eminent domain must be for a “public use,” which traditionally meant projects like roads or bridges. Meanwhile, the government must pay the owners “just compensation” for their property.
The Supreme Court Decision, Kelo v. New London, Made It Much Easier to Abuse Eminent Domain
Unfortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court gutted federal protection against unconstitutional eminent domain when it handed down its decision in Kelo v. New London in 2005. By a vote of 5-4, the Supreme Court dramatically expanded the definition of “public use” to include private economic development. In other words, local governments can condemn homes and businesses and transfer them to new owners if government officials think that the new owners will produce more taxes or jobs with the land.
As Justice Sandra Day O’Connor warned in her dissent: “The specter of condemnation hangs over all property. Nothing is to prevent the State from replacing any Motel 6 with a Ritz-Carlton, any home with a shopping mall, or any farm with a factory.”
Missouri Responds to KElo
Particularly after the Supreme Court’s decision in Kelo, Missouri is a state sorely in need of eminent domain reform. For years, redevelopment agencies throughout the state have used bogus blight designations to acquire private property for private development. Further enabling abuse, provisions in the Missouri Constitution authorize eminent domain for blight clearance and redevelopment. The General Assembly had the opportunity to dramatically improve its eminent domain laws, but let its citizens down by failing to adopt real, substantial reforms.
The state government did adopt House Bill 1944 (2006), which changes the law in several ways. The new law does specify that property cannot be condemned “solely” for economic development and it ends the prior practice of letting private developers initiate condemnations on their own behalf, but it continues to allow government agencies to take private property for the use of other private parties for any other justification, no matter how small or irrelevant. Conveniently for tax-hungry local governments and land-hungry developers, the law continues to let cities condemn whole neighborhoods as “blighted” based on vague, subjective factors such as “inadequate street layout,” “unsafe conditions,” and “obsolete platting.”
While it is a marginal improvement that such blight designations must now occur on a property-by-property basis—at least until a preponderance of the properties are blighted—the operational definition is so broad that any community could be at risk, no matter how well maintained. The new law says that blighted areas must be condemned within five years of their designations or else a new designation will be required, and farm land is specifically exempted from being declared blighted.
Although the legislature has failed to deliver substantial reforms, the Missouri Supreme Court has issued two decisions that limited eminent domain for private gain. First, in its 2007 ruling Centene Plaza Redevelopment Corporation. v. Mint Properties, the Court rejected a taking because “the finding of blight was not supported by substantial evidence.” Specifically, there was a “lack of evidence of social liability as to any portion of the area sought to be condemned.”
Then in 2013, the Court ruled that a taking for a loop track was part of an economic development plan and not permitted under Missouri’s post-Kelo reforms. Although the law “may make a taking more difficult to effectuate,” the Court declared in State ex rel. Jackson v. Dolan, “that difficulty is the intended result of the statute, the primary purpose of which was to limit the opportunities for which a condemning authority may use the power of eminent domain.”
In addition, the Court reaffirmed that the “condemning authority bears the burden of proving that a particular taking serves a public purpose,” and so it also “should bear the burden of demonstrating that its taking is not solely for economic development.”
Based on the state’s legislative activity and state supreme court rulings, Missouri receives a C for its protections against eminent domain.
Is the Government Trying to Take Your Home or Business with Eminent Domain?
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Even if the Institute for Justice cannot take your case, IJ has created the Eminent Domain Abuse Survival Guide to help people fight back. These methods for grassroots activism can be enormously successful. Through community organizing and activism alone, the Institute for Justice has teamed up with local communities to help save nearly 20,000 homes and small businesses from condemnation or being labeled as “blighted” or “in need of redevelopment,” the precursor to eminent domain in many states.
Eminent Domain Facts
Myths about eminent domain abound. Here are the facts:
Eminent Domain is Not a “Last Resort”
Eminent domain is not just abused when people lose their homes in court. It is also abused when a home or business owner sells under the threat of condemnation. The government’s ability to condemn property is so ominous that the mere threat of eminent domain influences all “negotiations.”
Truly voluntary negotiation is impossible when one party has the power to get what it wants no matter what; if the government can take any property it wants, owners have no real power in negotiation. So when officials say they will use eminent domain only as a last resort, it simply means they will use force to take people’s property against their will if they do not agree on a price.
Economic Development Does Not Need Eminent Domain
Projects that use eminent domain often fail to live up to their hype and can end with vacant lots and empty promises. By imposing tremendous costs (both social and economic) in the form of lost communities, uprooted families and destroyed small businesses, eminent domain often thwarts, rather than helps, economic growth. Instead of seizing private property, cities can streamline regulatory barriers, like permitting and zoning laws, and usher in development without eminent domain.
Eminent Domain Harms Vulnerable Communities
Communities targeted by eminent domain for private development are much more likely to be communities of color, while residents are much more likely to live at or below the poverty line and have lower levels of income and education than surrounding neighborhoods, according to research by the Institute for Justice. Cities often target these communities for condemnations, as government officials know the residents there rarely have the political clout or the financial means to fight back.