Freedom means little without property rights. Your freedom to use your talents and hard work to acquire wealth means nothing if your property rights can be denied at the whim of a few politicians. No civilization in the history of mankind has been able to sustain economic liberty without protecting the right to property.
Our law recognizes that that there are times when government must use its police power to seize the property of private citizens. Even though eminent domain is not specifically recognized in the U.S. Constitution, the Supreme Court has ruled that eminent domain “appertains to every independent government. It requires no constitutional recognition; it is an attribute of sovereignty.” The limitation on the right of government to seize property is set forth in the Fifth Amendment with these words: ” … nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”
OK, enough constitutional law class. Let’s peek at what’s happening in Alabaster, Ala. What you read here should horrify you. You need to know, though, that this sort of government assault on private-property rights is not confined to Alabama. It is going on virtually everywhere in this country.
A private Alabama developer named Colonial Properties Trust wants to build a shopping center anchored by a Wal-Mart at Alabaster’s only interchange with I-65. Colonial, though, can’t seem to get the land they need. A few private land owners have refused to sell their property at the prices offered. That should be the end of the story. If one private individual wants to own a certain piece of property, but the legal owner of that piece of property doesn’t want to sell it, the private-property rights of the owner of the real estate should be recognized, and the person trying to buy the property should back off.
Well, that’s not the way it’s working in Alabaster. Colonial, you see, has some friends in powerful places … politicians on the Alabaster City Council. Colonial has decided to use that one unique government asset – the right to use force – to accomplish something that it cannot accomplish on its own. Colonial is asking the City of Alabaster to seize the property under eminent domain and then sell that property to Colonial so the shopping center can be built. The politicians of Alabaster are only too eager to cooperate.
This week, the City of Alabaster will file condemnation proceedings in the Shelby County, Alabama courts. The city will seek to seize the land under the principle of eminent domain. But wait! Aren’t governments supposed to use eminent domain to seize private property only when that property is needed for a public use? How can these politicians take that property away from its owners and then sell it to a private company to build a privately owned shopping center?
Here’s the twist – and here’s where you need to fear for your own property rights. Alabaster politicians claim they simply cannot collect enough property taxes in their town of 24,000 to pay for all of the government they believe the citizens of Alabaster need. They need some sales taxes. Trouble is, there aren’t enough businesses around town to generate the amount of sales taxes these politicians crave. The answer? Hey! Let’s get a shopping center in town. A shopping center will generate thousands of dollars in sales taxes, and we’ll have all that money to spend! (The real answer? Just dissolve the City of Alabaster.)
So, Alabaster’s “public use” excuse is that the current owners of the land simply don’t pay enough taxes. The land needs to be seized and turned over to someone who will pay more. Those additional taxes can then be spent on the public. There’s your “public use.” Not a school, a road, a hospital or a police station. Just get the property in the hands of someone who will pay more taxes.
Alabaster City Councilman Tommy Ryals thinks that these property owners are just being greedy. “Sometimes,” he says, ” the good of the many has to outweigh the greed of the few.” Indeed, Councilman Ryals, how dare these private-property owners refuse to sell their private property when the new owner could generate so many tax dollars for the good of the many! Don’t these people realize that the rights of one individual to his property are nothing when the need of the collective is considered?
And just how many acres does your home occupy, dear reader? Could a developer squeeze about five cluster-mansions into your lot? Hey … that’s a lot of property tax! Better call U-Haul.