Kelo abandonment holds lesson for Wichita

In New London, Connecticut, developers wanted to build a new business complex on land owned by a number of homeowners, including Suzette Kelo. She didn’t want to sell, and the case eventually wound its way to the United States Supreme Court. In the decision, the court ruled in favor of the ability of cities to use eminent domain to take property from one party and give to another private party for economic development.

Locally, at least one Wichita bureaucrat was relieved. According to Wichita Eagle reporting:

City economic development director Allen Bell lauded the Supreme Court decision.

“I’m relieved to know that we’ll continue to have an important tool for implementing economic development and urban redevelopment projects here in Wichita,” Bell said. “But this is a tool we do not use lightly. The city of Wichita has never sought to use eminent domain except in very rare cases when there is no alternative to keep a project alive and further the overall needs of the city.”

So what has happened in New London? Nothing. In fact, worse than nothing, as the planned development has been abandoned. Paul Jacob of the Citizens on Charge Foundation gives an excellent wrap-up of the situation in The politics of government usurpation, post-Kelo.

Eminent domain was used to assemble the property where the WaterWalk development stands in downtown Wichita. This development is emblematic of the failures of public-private partnerships. Is its failure the result of its foundation built on eminent domain?

As Wichita prepares its plans for downtown revitalization, freedom-loving citizens need to insist that the city forgo the use of eminent domain, especially the threat of its use. On its face, it appears that Kansas has a strong law prohibiting the type of eminent domain takings that the Supreme Court authorized in the Kelo decision. Kansas law says that the legislature must pass a law allowing the use of eminent domain on a specific parcel of property, if the purpose is to give it to another private party.

But it is the threat of the use of eminent domain that remains the real problem. We can easily imagine a scenario where the City of Wichita decides it needs a parcel of property for some public-private use. Mayor Carl Brewer may make the case that the property is needed so that Wichita can create hundreds, perhaps thousands of jobs. The economic future of our city hangs in the balance, he’ll say. Dale Goter, Wichita Governmental Relations Manager, will make the case to legislators that Wichita really needs the property. By the way, legislator from Overland Park, won’t your city also want to use eminent domain someday?

The poor property owner, who in the past would have been faced with a small battle in the Kansas district court, now has to lobby the entire Kansas legislature to protect his property.

This is why it is important for Wichitans to insist the the plans for downtown Wichita revitalization specifically state that eminent domain — not even its threat — will be used.

This summer I traveled to Anaheim, California to learn about a redevelopment district where the city decided not to use eminent domain. The article Anaheim’s mayor wrote about this planning effort is titled “Development Without Eminent Domain: Foundation of Freedom Inspires Urban Growth.” It’s very informative.

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