Righting A Wrong on Property Rights


by Timothy Sandefur

The Christian Science Monitor editorializes in favor of eminent domain reform. Unfortunately, the Monitor wants a watered-down kind of reform that in practice would mean little protection for property owners. For example, the Monitor writes,

Several states (but not enough) have worked to open up the eminent domain process so that owners have more advanced notice or a better appeals process. The new Missouri law, for instance, establishes an ombudsman for property owners.

This is an unfortunate example, becuase of all the reforms that have been enacted so far, Missouri's is among the least protective of property owners. If states want to reform their laws to define "blight" more narrowly (so that it doesn't let government get away with taking just about any property it wants) far better models are those in Pennsylvania or Indiana, where new laws define blight very precisely.

Nor is the Monitor any clearer when it comes to "zoning." The ballot initiatives in Washington, California, Nevada, and other states, that would require compensation for certain regulatory takings are not about zoning. They're about the abuse of government regulation–sometimes including the abuse of zoning laws–to take private property from people without compensating them for it. When a regulation (maybe including a zoning regulation) requires a person to shut down his small business, or forbids him from constructing a home on property that he bought and paid for, it is the same thing as bulldozing a home: both cases involve the government taking a person's property away. Maybe doing so is warranted in a particular case. But if so, the government ought to be required to pay the owner just compensation for taking his property away.