June 30, 2010

Speculating on the public dime: Burien is latest eminent domain loser

By Speculating on the public dime: Burien is latest eminent domain loser

Author: Daniel Himebaugh

The city of Burien, Washington is in the news this week because its "Town Square" condo project has run into serious financial difficulty.  While the reporting on Town Square's problems has highlighted slow sales, some vital details about the development are not being reported.  The property where Town Square now sits — nearly vacant — came into the city's possession through eminent domain, making Town Square the most recent example of how the shortsighted practice of employing eminent domain for the benefit of private developers is failing throughout the nation.

In November, we wrote about the collapse of the now infamous New London, Connecticut Pfizer project.  The Pfizer project was at the center of the U.S. Supreme Court's Kelo decision, which endorsed the use of eminent domain to transfer private property to private land developers.  The plan in New London included using the city's power of eminent domain to take Suzette Kelo's home and turn it over to a developer, who would then build condos and a convention center, all of which was intended to encourage people to visit the Pfizer facility and to promote the city's economy.  The project has since been shuttered, leaving only "a wasteland of fields and weeds."

Town Square in Burien is not a wasteland, but the project has flopped.  Buyers have purchased only six of Town Square's 124 condo units, according to The Seattle Times.  This must be especially infuriating to former property owners, such as the Strobel family, who were forced to sell their family's restaurant to the city because it did not fit into the city's "lofty vision" for Town Square.

Property development is a risky and high-stakes endeavor, which is exactly why government should not be using the power of eminent domain to speculate in private projects.  Property rights advocates have long argued that using eminent domain to benefit private entities is illegal and unjust.  Apparently, it's also bad business.

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