There’s good news and bad news.
First, the bad. As we all know, there just aren’t enough places to play skee-ball in Mount Holly, New Jersey.
Which just ain’t right.
But fear not. The good news rights that wrong.
I have found the perfect location for skee ball this side of Steel Pier.
Unfortunately for Mount Holly mayor Tom Gibson, that location happens to be where his house now sits.
Hey, stuff happens.
All that remains to be done is grease the political skids and file the paperwork required to seize Gibby’s house through eminent domain.
Isn’t it great when the government can take private property in order to….develop more profitable private property? What a country!
* * *
In 2003, Mount Holly Township unveiled its plan to take — or “purchase,” as it is known in eminent domain parlance — the 350 homes in the Mount Holly Gardens housing complex so that 25 acres of land could be turned into a housing and commercial complex.
The plan? Build 292 townhouses (costing roughly $225,000 each), 228 multifamily apartments and 54,000 square feet of commercial space.
And they even have a cute name for the redevelopment: the Village at Parker’s Mill. You have to admit that sounds better than Mount Holly Gardens.
Residents of the Gardens have had appraisal inspections conducted on their properties so that “negotiations” can soon begin on the final price the government will pay the homeowners. But regardless of the price, the residents will be far worse off than they are now.
Fancy names, nice houses and new stores. . .is this all that’s necessary to invoke eminent domain and destroy people’s lives? How is it that we’ve given politicians eager for a 30-second sound bite the power to dictate who stays, and who goes?
Is this the new Amerika?
Sadly, the answer is yes.
* * *
In a 2005 ruling that many consider the worst U.S. Supreme Court decision in history, five mind-numbingly obtuse justices decided that citizens’ land could be taken by the government for private economic development, even if those properties were not in areas of blight or decay.
The criteria? When local or state officials think the public would benefit.
Whatever that means.
Forget the original intent of eminent domain, which actually had the public’s best interest in mind when considering public projects, such as utilities, railroads and highways.
It seems those things, while necessary, just weren’t sexy enough for today’s pols.
Where’s the fun in just building a road when you can construct a mall with all the perks that come with being mayor or councilman in that location?
So when houses are bulldozed to make way for a plush private golf course — and wealthy duffers happen to line the campaign pockets of politicians who decide such matters — is that in the public’s interest?
As then-Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote in her dissent to the eminent domain decision, the “specter of condemnation hangs over all property. Nothing is to prevent the State from replacing any Motel 6 with a Ritz-Carlton, any home with a shopping mall, or any farm with a factory.”
In other words, the rich and powerful get what they want, the politicians make out, and small property owners — the other 99.9% of Americans — get squashed.
Somehow, it’s doubtful the Founding Fathers had this in mind when they created America.
* * *
The Mount Holly Gardens’ homeowners are neither wealthy nor influential, so their options are extremely limited.
Fighting City Hall means huge legal fees with no guarantee of success. And since their backs are pressed against the financial wall already, they have to watch every penny.
On average, Mount Holly residents can expect between $32,000 and $49,000 for their homes, with $15,000 in relocation costs.
Even assuming that a resident’s home is paid in full, and he receives a check for $60,000, where does that leave him?
Loans are virtually impossible to obtain in this economy, so residents will now watch their nest eggs quickly disappear into rent payments. And those on fixed income, who had only to worry about property taxes (not insignificant in Jersey), now must face the prospect of writing a mortgage or rent check for the rest of their lives.
All because a handful of self-interested politicians want their pet project to come to life.
And if those poor folks don’t like it, well, they probably weren’t supporters of the pols anyway.
Instead, it’s off to another project. What are we knocking down next?
* * *
The use of eminent domain in America was always supposed to be a last resort. When it did have to be employed, landowners were supposed to be given fair compensation, and, in most cases, the greater public good was easily recognized.
The Blue Route, I-476, is a prime example. After years of eminent domain court battles, the project was given the green light, and the rest is history. That highway is regarded as one of the most important infrastructure improvements in Pennsylvania history, saving untold billions over the last 20 years.
But it is unfathomable that in today’s Amerika, eminent domain has evolved into the weapon of choice for greedy, corrupt or simply misguided politicians.
While new townhouses at Mount Holly Gardens and a skee-ball center near Mayor Gibson’s home sound great, it’s just not right to kick Americans out of their homes to build them.
Here’s for putting the “c” back in “America.”
Chris Freind is an independent columnist and investigative reporter who operates his own news bureau, www.FreindlyFireZone.com
Readers of his column, “Freindly Fire,” hail from six continents, thirty countries and all fifty states. His work has been referenced in numerous publications including The Wall Street Journal, National Review Online, foreign newspapers, and in Dick Morris’ recent bestseller “Catastrophe.”
Freind also serves as a weekly guest commentator on the Philadelphia-area talk radio show, Political Talk (WCHE 1520), and makes numerous other television and radio appearances. He can be reached at CF@FreindlyFireZone.com