Scott Mooneyham: The lesson of Connecticutt

Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 6, 2009

RALEIGH ó In New London, Conn., finding a public benefit to one of the more controversial governmental acts of recent times might prove a little difficult these days.
A few years back, New London became embroiled in a renowned court case because of that action.
The city had used its condemnation powers to take the property of Susette Kelo and her neighbors. The property wasn’t condemned to build a school or public hospital. The city wanted the property to redevelop the land so that other private property owners could eventually take it.
The rest is history.
Kelo and some neighbors sued. The case eventually made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld the city’s right to use eminent domain for economic development purposes.
The ruling was widely condemned by most everyone not employed by a local government or not blinded by some definition of progress so narrow that any governmental act in its name can be justified.
The nation’s high court, though, ruled that the property taking and the job creation that would result added up to a public benefit or public use, and therefore didn’t violate the 7th Amendment of the Bill of Rights.
Those jobs and that benefit came from plans by drug-maker Pfizer to build a research facility adjacent to the redeveloped property.
But in early November, Pfizer announced it was shutting down the research plant. All that land forcibly bought still remains fallow.
What do New London and Pfizer have to do with North Carolina?
Well, North Carolina legislators ó unlike those in several other states ó refused to put an amendment to the state constitution before voters to block this sort of thing from happening here.
The powers-that-be in the state don’t seem willing to open their eyes to the lessons of New London and the Pfizer plant closing.
One University of North Carolina School of Government professor said while writing about the plant closing: “If North Carolina were to enact such an amendment, would it result in any changes to current eminent domain policies? Not really.”
The professor ignores the state’s own history. At least five times over the past 30 years, local laws allowed the exact same kind of taking for economic development purposes that occurred in New London.
In the early 1980s, Lumberton and Hot Springs exercised such power. In the early 1990s, Duplin County and the Stanly Airport Authority took a turn. In 2000, Charlotte won permission to condemned property for a business park in the western stretches of the city.
In each case, local governments came to the legislature seeking permission. The local bills that granted that permission were essentially exceptions to existing law.
No comprehensive law governing eminent domain — whether passed in 1960 or in 2006 — could prevent the same thing from happening today.
That is the state’s policy.
Only a constitutional amendment will change it.
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Scott Mooneyham writes about state government issues for Capitol Press Association.