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Homeowners Battle to Keep Their Property

Matt Dery of New London, Conn., has been fighting for almost six years to hold on to his property.

Four homes sit on the land that has been in Dery's family since they moved from Italy in the 1890s, surviving even through the struggles of the Great Depression. Dery lives in one of the four homes with his wife, son and niece. His father and mother live next door. His mother, Wilhelmina, 85, has lived in her house for her entire life.

But since the city of New London ceded eminent domain powers to the New London Development Corporation, the NLDC is trying to take the property for various private uses.

"I'm not going to have somebody take it away from us," Dery said. "There's no legitimate reason anybody should lose their homes so that someone can put money in their pockets."

Dery checks the state Supreme Court's Web site daily to see when his case is going to be heard. A lower court sided with the family, but NLDC appealed the ruling.

"It's really a powerless feeling," Dery said.

Eminent domain (search) allows the government to take real estate to fulfill a public purpose, like building a police station or public road. Private residents are supposed to be compensated under eminent domain, however, owners are frequently not given market value.

Last week, the Institute for Justice (search) released a report showing that in the last five years, state and local governments have taken or threatened to take more than 10,000 homes, businesses, churches and private land. But the property was not to be used for government projects.

According to examples from the report, governments condemned a family's home so that a manager of a planned new golf course could live in it; evicted four elderly siblings from their home of 60 years so developers could build a private industrial park; and removed a woman in her 80s from her home of 55 years in order, they said, to expand a sewer plant. Instead, the municipality ended up giving the woman's home to an auto dealership.

"It's one of those situations where the government just looks and says, 'We own the whole city, how would we like to design it?'" said study author and IJ senior attorney Dana Berliner.

"All of the incentives are towards freely using eminent domain as a club to threaten private, small home and business owners into giving up their property to large private developers."

But defenders say the process of eminent domain is needed to clean up faltering communities.

"Things are not being done in a slaphappy way," said Juan Otero, legislative counsel for the National League of Cities (search).

"Cities have to deal with a whole host of issues in terms of protecting the health, welfare and safety, and economic development of cities and towns. I take issue of the premise that somehow cities are profiteering when they have to take a holistic approach to all of these factors."

Some experts say eminent domain helps clean up grungy neighborhoods quickly and attract investment.

"Eminent domain has been used most often for economic housing and economic development in some of the worst-off areas of the city — areas where no one will invest," said John Kromer, senior consultant at the Fels Institute of Government (search) at the University of Pennsylvania, and author of the book, Neighborhood Recovery.

According to the IJ report, California, Kansas, Maryland, Michigan and Ohio have the largest track records of employing eminent domain to give property to private parties. Cities accused of being the worst abusers of eminent domain include Detroit, Riviera Beach, Fla., San Jose, Calif., and Philadelphia.

"It certainly is not what the founding fathers of the United States had in mind when they put in the Constitution that private property could only be taken for public use — they weren't thinking of shopping malls," Berliner said.

On the upside, the report says Delaware, Georgia, Idaho, Montana, New Hampshire, New Mexico, South Dakota and Wyoming have not employed eminent domain for private uses.

Philadelphia acquired 2,500 of the area's 30,000 abandoned properties last year through eminent domain laws. A blight program launched two years ago allows the city to acquire old dilapidated buildings and sites that owners have walked away from.

"We were looking at that as a sign of progress," said city spokeswoman Barbara Grant. "What we are trying to do is clear the way for developers to be able to build the land" with housing and businesses.

But a growing movement has emerged to fight what some call government "land grabs."

"We've seen grassroots groups springing up all over the country from people who are really energized about this," Berliner said. "They aren't political people but they see what's happening and they realize it's wrong."

Arizona state Rep. Eddie Farnsworth has sponsored a bill to limit eminent domain. It has passed the state House and is awaiting state Senate action. Different versions of the bill could be hammered out next week.

"Municipalities simply want to maintain absolute authority to take away private property and that's wrong," Farnsworth, a Republican, told The Arizona Republic. "Abuses are rampant and we must stop them."

Supporters of eminent domain say their efforts are not meant to worsen their area's homeless rates but to improve the quality of life in the communities.

"These city council folks work very hard to make sure there's transparencies and make sure the processes are open," Otero said. "In terms of the greatest good for the greatest dollar for the greatest benefit … it is a last resort … Local governments have to build livable communities — that's the bottom line."

But that's simply no justification for taking people's homes away, say opponents.

"Nobody should have that power," Dery said.