Monday, June 19, 2006

Eminent Domain: Sounds Like A Joke, But It's Not

FRAMINGHAM -- Selectmen will ask the town's Economic Development and Industrial Corp. to study how to broker a deal with a local developer to take over part of the MBTA park-and-ride lot for a possible restaurant.

Michael Laurano, lawyer for Timothy Hanna, asked selectmen to consider an eminent domain land-taking from the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority of 1672 Worcester Road, with Hanna financing the acquisition costs.

Under the proposal, selectmen would then deed the property to Hanna for the purposes of creating a new business, which Laurano said would likely be a new restaurant.

"Mr. Hanna has the will and the resources to do this project," said Laurano during Monday's selectmen meeting.

The park-and-ride lot has 250 parking spaces, said Laurano, but most days finds only about 20 cars parked there. He said the Turnpike Authority has let its ownership stake in the land lie dormant for several years.

"The Rugg-Gates house is practically a blighted building," said Laurano, referring to the historic home that is on the land.

In 2001, Hanna, who owns Ken's Steak House, scored a victory in his long-standing battle with the Turnpike Authority when his suit challenging the legality of taking the same land from him was reinstated on appeal.

But the state Appeals Court in 2004 affirmed a Superior Court ruling, saying the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority was justified in taking the entrance to a proposed hotel and office park in 1994.

[D. Craig MacCormack, "Eminent Domain Mulled for Pike Land," MetroWest Daily News, Sunday, June 18, 2006]

I'm not sure I can believe this story. The story certainly helps confirm my thoughts that the power of eminent domain is something we really should take back from government. If I understand the story line here, I'm thinking someone is telling a joke: "You see, there was this guy in Framingham. He's the guy who owns Ken's Steakhouse, but his name isn't Ken. It's Timothy. Over 10 years ago now, government told Tim that it was going to take his property over on Worcester Road because it needed it for a Turnpike or a parking lot or something. Tim got kind of mad at the idea so he took government to court to try to keep his land from being taken. Of course, the court was a government court, and the court said Tim couldn't stop government from taking the land, that it was important for the Turnpike Authority to have his land for a parking lot or whatever the Turnpike Authority thought it was important to have the land for. So Tim's land got taken by government for the Turnpike Authority to own. Now after that, the Turnpike Authority built a parking lot, but almost no one ever uses it. And, there is an old "historic" building called the Rugg-Gates house that no one uses either, and that the Turnpike Authority doesn't even try to keep up. It just sits there now, on what used to be Tim's land. So, Tim carries this grudge about all of this over the years. And, now, over 10 years later Tim gets a bright idea. He goes down to city hall and asks the city to take the property by eminent domain from the Turnpike Authority, and then give it back to him (the rightful owner of course). After all, there is an old blighted building on the property, and almost no one ever parks in the lot. Tim promises that if the city government will take his property back from the Turnpike Authority that he will pay out of his own pocket the amount of money the city has to pay in just compensation for taking his land back. But there's more, Tim promises economic development because if the city takes his land back he will build a new restaurant on his old land, land that almost no one makes any use of right now. He's thinking he might call this new restaurant Tim's Steak House. . . . ."

I can't really think of what a good punch line would be for a joke like this. But, stories like this make eminent domain seem to be a joke, and the joke is on us. It just seems like stories like these shouldn't be a part of a just, fair, and efficient system of political economy.