There was an odd little story in USA Today on Sunday, covering the raft of so-called “property rights” initiatives on the November ballot throughout the Western U.S.
I say odd, because it almost completely misses the point.
As the story notes, a lot of people are pretty exercised about a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case of Kelo vs. New London, which held that it was perfectly constitutional for a state or local government to condemn private property and hand it over to another private party — a trick that’s been used off and on for some time now, sometimes in the name of revitalizing blighted urban neighborhoods, but other times with seedy and distateful results (see, e.g., the Texas Ranger’s baseball stadium).
The western states’ initiatives are riding a wave of opposition to Kelo, which seems to have ticked off people across the political spectrum. And that’s the story that USA Today focused on.
But Kelo isn’t the real story in these ballot measures. It just isn’t.
You see, all but one of the ballot measures contains two separate parts: one that addresses Kelo abuses; and a second, essentially unrelated part that targets planning, zoning, and similar efforts that communities use to plan for the future, maintain their quality of life, and protect residents’ property values. (Read more on the effects of these initiatives here.)
Now I’m no expert, but it seems to me that if the anti-Kelo portions of these initiatives were to pass, not a whole lot would change. Sure, there are a lot of people upset about the Kelo decision and its potential for abuse. Perhaps they’re right to be upset. But for all the fuss, Kelo-style eminent domain cases are pretty rare. And more to the point, in some of the states where voters will weigh in on eminent domain, Kelo-style excesses are already illegal: state legislators have already voted to curtail them.
But if the anti-planning portions pass, the changes would be pretty profound. Overnight, it would become virtually impossible for communities, both rural and urban, to adopt new planning and zoning ordinances; changing or updating zoning plans could trigger big payouts to affected landowners. Of course, some people could stand to make a bundle under that sort of scheme; but while there would certainly be a few winners, there would be far more losers.
To me, the anti-Kelo provisions of these initiatives are little more than Trojan horses — showy exteriors designed to attract attention and votes.
The real story is the hidden anti-planning payload. And USA Today missed the story. They fell for the Trojan horse.