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Citizens Fight Eminent Domain Ruling

In dozens of communities across the United States, citizens are fighting to save their homes.

The battle is over a legal provision known as 'eminent domain,' which allows government officials to take a person's private property, provided they offer adequate compensation, and they use the property for a "public purpose." Often, eminent domain is used to take land for things like roads and schools. But recently, local officials have been using it to build shopping malls, condominiums, and other privately owned enterprises. Many believe this is not a proper use of the provision - even though the U.S. Supreme Court says otherwise.

When Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that all people have a right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," he was borrowing from the British philosopher John Locke, who wrote about the fundamental human right to "life, liberty, and property."

It is a right that Rose LaRosa of Long Branch, New Jersey, is fighting to preserve. Her father bought the house she now lives in back in 1944, after her brother, who wanted the home, was killed in World War II. "Every letter he wrote, 'Pop, buy that property. When the war's over, we'll have a lot of fun,'" she recalls with sadness. "And now they want to take it."

Ms. LaRosa's house is located along the beach, in an economically depressed part of New Jersey. Two and a half years ago, the city of Long Branch announced a massive re-development plan that calls for the construction of restaurants, shops and luxury condominiums along the oceanfront. The private development is expected to increase the tax base in Long Branch considerably, making it easier for the community to finance the construction of roads and schools.

But in order for it to be built, people with houses along the beach will have to sell their homes, so the structures can be bulldozed. Many residents like Rose LaRosa do not want to sell, and so the city is forcing them to, by invoking the power of eminent domain.

"My dad bought this house for a very sad reason, and I feel like we already gave to America," Ms. LaRosa says defiantly. "Now we have to give our home to a developer, for him to make more money?"

What makes the situation controversial is that city officials are not taking private property and turning it into something public. They are taking land from one private owner and turning it over to another, who stands to make a multi-million dollar profit. It is a scenario that is playing out in nearly a hundred communities across the United States -- and, at least for now, it is perfectly legal.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that economic development can be considered a public use of land, unless lawmakers specifically define "public use" otherwise. The fact that the development involves a private company, in other words, does not necessarily preclude the possibility of public benefit.

In fact, development by private companies that got their land through eminent domain has had a great deal of public benefit throughout American history, according to Michael Allen Wolf, a law professor at the University of Florida. "The railroads would not have been built the way they were built in this country without the power of eminent domain," he says. "Natural gas, cable television, the telephone lines -- the list goes on and on. The power of eminent domain has made all of those things possible at an efficient cost in the United States."

Nevertheless, Professor Wolf says he does have some misgivings about the way eminent domain is being used today by local officials, desperate to meet their expenses without raising taxes. Many prominent political leaders have misgivings, too. At least 38 states have put forward legislation that would make it more difficult for officials to use eminent domain to promote private business development. And on the federal level, Senator John Cornyn of Texas has proposed a law that would deny federal funds to any project that Congress believes is an abuse of the power of eminent domain.

"This legislation would declare Congress' view that the power of eminent domain should only be exercised for public use, and that this power to seize homes, small businesses, and other private properties should be reserved only for true public benefits," Senator Cornyn recently announced. "Most importantly, the power of eminent domain should not be used simply to provide private economic development."

So far, 30 senators have signed on to the proposed bill, and similar legislation has been presented in the House of Representatives.

It is unlikely, though, that this proposed legislation - or similar bills that enjoy bipartisan support in the New Jersey state legislature - will be passed in time to save Rose LaRosa's home. Many of her neighbors have already sold their houses and moved away, and the nearly completed, multi-story condominium complex that now looms over her house seems to suggest that Ms. LaRosa is going to have to find another place to live.