How to reign in eminent domain abuses

Opinion

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Dear State Senator Kimberly Lightford,

I read with interest the Chicago Tribune article on Jan. 18 headlined, "Suburban officials pan eminent domain bill." I'm sure you are aware that outrage over the use of eminent domain for simple economic development was rising in this country well before the recent Supreme Court decision, and that it cuts across all political persuasions. I live in Oak Park where virtually all of my friends and neighbors are progressive-Democrat voters, and it's been a long time since a subject so united liberals and conservatives in a shared sense that things have gone too far.

Coverage of this issue seems to just describe a simple tradeoff between local governments' need to spur redevelopment, vs. homeowners' property rights. That misses another huge issue which we here in Oak Park talk about all the time from firsthand experience: that easy access to eminent domain powers encourages poor planning and development action by local governments. The "blighted-area" test for eminent domain has long since been diluted beyond recognition or reason; towns are using eminent domain simply because they can.

The majority of Illinois voters would accept the regrettable necessity of eminent domain for economic redevelopment of truly blighted areas if that standard were consistently enforced. What we are no longer willing to do is rely on public officials, including the courts, to ensure that eminent domain use is truly only when necessary. The only enforcer we could be persuaded to trust is ourselves.

That suggests a solution to the negotiations now underway in Springfield regarding this subject: require eminent domain use by local governments to be approved by elected town councils who must first stand for re-election. How about: any eminent-domain use must be approved by a village board at least 120 days prior to a local election, and in order to be carried out, must be ratified by that village's board after the winners of that election are sworn into office. Since a controversial eminent-domain action is sure to be made an issue in that local election, the voters would be able to decide whether taking someone's home is, in fact, justified. That solution would gain wide bipartisan support in Illinois.

Paul Botts
Oak Park

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