More Than Shocking To Lose Your Home To Developers

Wednesday, July 6, 2005 - by Sen. Mae Beavers, Tn. District 17

Even as our Founding Fathers promoted ideas about liberty and happiness, freedom of the press and freedom to bear arms – thereby laying the groundwork for the idea of equality – initially such “equality” of one vote one man, was inseparable from property rights. After all, the vote only extended to property owners.

Of course, land wasn’t what it is today. Thousands upon thousands of acres of unclaimed land could be purchased for a song or settled for free. Still, the impulse to survey the land, to buy, to develop and to speculate was there in the moment of this country’s birth.

As we have just celebrated the founding of this great country, it’s interesting to note that the concept of private property – so valued by the founding fathers is evolving into a state where land speculation and economic development is valued over the concept of private property rights of the individual.

In 1795 in a U. S. Supreme Court case, Justice William Paterson wrote “that the right of acquiring . . . property, and having it protected, is one of the natural, inherent and unalienable rights of man. Men have a sense of property: Property is necessary to their subsistence, and correspondent to their natural wants and desires; its security was one of the objects, that induced them to unite in society.”

The Supreme Court recently ruled that governments may invoke eminent domain and seize homes, churches and businesses in order to give the land to private developers to encourage “economic development.”

This recent ruling ignores the intent of our Founding Fathers of individual property rights.

For sixteen years before becoming a legislator, my profession was court reporting. In that profession, I had many occasions to take down condemnation cases where a person’s property was being taken for a public purpose, such as a road or even a water tower. I even had the occasion to take one case where the late Senator Albert Gore, Sr.’s property was taken for a highway in Smith County.

However, the Supreme Court has gone too far now, leaving it up to local governments to determine whether your property or your church would bring in more tax revenue if it were bulldozed to make room for a shopping mall or some other economic development.

Justice O’Connor criticized the majority, and rightly so, for abandoning the conservative principle of individual property rights and handing “disproportionate influence and power” to the powerful developers. She wrote: “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.”

At least eight states forbid the use of eminent domain for economic development unless it is to eliminate blight. Other states either expressly allow a taking for private economic purposes or have not spoken clearly to the question.

What about Tennessee? Could your property be taken for economic development?

We have already seen several occasions in Tennessee where private businesses have been taken to make way for private development that would bring in more tax money.

It is my intention to file a Constitutional Amendment to make sure that this does not happen in Tennessee in the future. The Constitutional Amendment is only one way to protect your rights. This route would take longer since it has to pass two legislatures.

More immediately, I intend to make sure that the laws are written in such a way that your local government cannot infringe on your individual property rights by taking your property for economic development.

In a newspaper article written by James Madison in 1792, one of our founding fathers expressed his thoughts on property rights: “If the United States mean to obtain or deserve the full praise due to wise and just governments, they will equally respect the rights of property.”

It is shocking to see what has happened in this country. It is more than shocking to believe that you could lose your home to private developers.

The law has always allowed government to seize land for the public use. But would our Founding Fathers have considered high-end condos and big end stores owned by private corporations “public”?

Sen. Mae Beavers

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