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Capitol West Dilemma a Cautionary Exercise

Laurence Cohen

May 02, 2011

Most eminent domain cases are as dull as a business journal without Cohen the Columnist.

A shadowy government entity wants to construct a vital highway, byway, bridge, statue of the mayor, on your property. You’re cranky. The government seizes your property, declares the project an important “public use,” and offers you something masquerading as fair market value. You quibble, you negotiate — and eventually, the deed is done. Eminent domain.

In recent years, eminent domain squabbles have become more grandiose, as the government definition of “public use,” or “public benefit,” has expanded to include land-grabs designed to turn over sites to other private parties, who are much prettier and more powerful than the incumbent landowner. Are private property rights being abused?

Even as we speak, Congress is mulling a “Private Property Rights Protection Act,” which would forbid the use of federal economic development funds for eminent domain grabs intended for private development, rather than a legitimate public purpose.

The unlovely New London eminent domain case (Kelo v. New London) staggered all the way up the U.S. Supreme Court, where a murky, unlovely split decision suggested that almost any government land theft probably, maybe, kind of, had some kind of public purpose. Many states adjusted their eminent domain statutes to prohibit government takings for the benefit of private companies or developers. Oddly enough, the scene of the crime, Connecticut, sort of established a make-believe eminent domain ombudsman, intended to have even less to do than the average newspaper editor.

Urban jurisdictions have conjured up legal justifications that permit eminent domain takings as a remedy for “blight,” which tends to be in the eye of the beholder.

The ambiguity of eminent domain standards, combined with the American love affair with “personal property rights,” leads to all manner of angst and drama — made more odd by the semi-legitimate efforts by the urban planners to pretty up the neighborhood or initiate an economic development miracle.

And so it is with the city of Hartford’s initial efforts to flex its eminent domain muscles and snap up Capitol West, the less-than-lovely “office center” in Asylum Hill that spoiled the view for the boys and girls at The Hartford Financial Services, when they look out the wrong windows.

As reported in the Business Journal, the two sides are in the early stages of snarling at each other over the price at which the building would be seized by eminent domain, torn down, and then?oh, yes, that’s the question, isn’t it? The present owners, at least for negotiating purposes, question the authority of the city to snap up property that while not exactly prettying up the neighborhood, is not leaking, falling down, or housing hookers advertising for a good time. What would the city do with its empty lot?

What Capitol West represents at the moment is an embarrassment, for city planners and cheerleaders who don’t want a piece of unhappy property on a desirable piece of land, advertising the lack of enthusiasm for development in and near downtown and the Asylum Hill neighborhood.

While the city justification for taking the property is draped in rhetoric about city planning and the like, in truth, in the short term, the objective is to tear down the embarrassment.

Whether the environment at the moment is a general catastrophe for commercial office space or a particular lack of interest in the bright lights of Hartford, who should bear the risk of waiting out the storm?

The current owners of Capitol West, for better or worse, chose to be in the real estate investment business. The taxpayers of Hartford? Maybe not.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Business Journal. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Business Journal Archives at http://www.hartfordbusiness.com/archives.php.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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