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Welcome to STop, the Seattle Times Opinion blog where our editorial writers and editors share their evolving thoughts on a variety of issues. STop is a place where opinion writers and readers can exchange views and readers can learn more about how editorial positions are formed.

The opinions you read below are those of the individual writers, not necessarily views that will become formal positions of The Seattle Times. Respond to STop
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Jim Vesely
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Jim Vesely
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Lee Moriwaki
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Kate Riley
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Lynne Varner
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February 22, 2005

Taking Your House for "Public Use"

Could the state condemn your home and resell the land for a hotel? Condos? A big-box retailer? The U.S. Constitution is a bit vague on it. The Fifth Amendment says, “…nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation.” What’s a public use? A police station, certainly. A road. A railroad, though privately owned, is also a public use, in American history, because it is exceedingly difficult to build one without the power of condemnation. But how about a hotel owned by a private corporation? It is open to the public. The public may use it if they pay the private owners. Is that a “public use?”

In some states it is. A case now comes to the U.S. Supreme Court from Connecticut, which has allowed the city of New London to condemn people’s houses for a 90-acre commercial project. Opponents say this is not a public use. The city says it’s a public use because it will generate tax money.

That is not the doctrine in Washington. Our 1889 constitution says in Article 1, Section 16, with a few small exceptions, “Private property shall not be taken for private use.” Local government has pushed the limits with “public-private partnerships” such as the Mariner stadium, but we have not allowed land to be condemned for Wal-Marts and Costcos.

Which is fine by me. We still have big-box retailers, and hotels and condos, without allowing our houses to be taken by the government. I can understand eminent domain for roads and railroads, because they are connectors requiring contiguous property. Also for something like an airport (or expanding one, like Sea-Tac’s third runway). Not for a hotel or a shopping center. These can be built in many places. It is no justification that a particular city wants to attract these things into its jurisdiction so it can tax them.

Respond to Bruce.

 
Posted by Bruce Ramsey at February 22, 2005 11:41 AM



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