Monday, September 28, 2009

The Kelo Case Redux: Pfizer's "Nice Place" Ends Up Covered with Weeds

Four years ago we posted (here, here and here) about the controversial US Supreme Court decision in the Kelo case. Most discussion of the case at the time focused on individual property rights vs the power of the government to promote economic development, but the case had an important health care angle.

Briefly, the case centered on the taking of private property, including a house owned by Susette Kelo, by a not-for-profit organization, the New London (Connecticut) Development Corporation (NLDC) given the power of eminent domain by the New London city government. While the ostensible rationale for the taking was economic development, the action appeared to have been at the behest of Pfizer Inc, the world's largest pharmaceutical company, which had built a research and development facility in the city, and wanted a suitably upscale and sanitized environment for its workers.

As we previously posted, the NLDC's leadership had multiple conflicts of interest that involved ties to Pfizer. One board member was a Pfizer vice-president. The board president was married to another Pfizer vice-president. Pfizer wanted the part of New London that included Kelo's house made more attractive to complement its new research facility. The husband of the NLDC president had said, "Pfizer wants a nice place to operate. We don't want to be surrounded by tenements."

Kelo's and other property owners' protest of the taking went all the way to the US Supreme Court. As we posted here, the Court decided against the property owners by a 5-4 vote. Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority that the city's "determination that the area was sufficiently distressed to justify a program of economic rejuvenation is entitled to our deference. The city has carefully formulated an economic development plan that it believes will provide appreciable benefits to the community, including - but by no means limited to - jobs and increased revenues." This majority opinion is important, because the Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution provides "nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation." Many had interpreted this provision to mean that eminent domain could only be used to take property for public use, e.g., to build a road or a public school, but not for private purposes, like building upscale waterfront developments.

The Associated Press just published an ironic follow-up.

Weeds, glass, bricks, pieces of pipe and shingle splinters have replaced the knot of aging homes at the site of the nation's most notorious eminent domain project.

There are a few signs of life: Feral cats glare at visitors from a miniature jungle of Queen Anne's lace, thistle and goldenrod. Gulls swoop between the lot's towering trees and the adjacent sewage treatment plant.

But what of the promised building boom that was supposed to come wrapped and ribboned with up to 3,169 new jobs and $1.2 million a year in tax revenues? They are noticeably missing.

What happened?

New London the city's prized economic development plan has fallen apart as the economy crumbled.

The Corcoran Jennison Cos., a Boston-based developer, had originally locked in exclusive rights to develop nearly the entire northern half of the Fort Trumbull peninsula.

But those rights expired in June 2008, despite multiple extensions, because the firm was unable to secure financing, according to President Marty Jones.

So that was the result of the economic development plan the Supreme Court majority termed "carefully formulated." The lesson seems to be that when government makes policy to favor individual corporations, the results are bad policy and little public benefit. Government leaders often seem willing to favor specific health care organizations, rationalizing their actions in terms of economic development or promoting health and health care. Doing so may benefit the corporations involved, but rarely individual or public health.

Although US local and national government officials have have increasingly practiced such corporate socialism, they have neglected their regulatory roles. Instead of picking winners and losers, government would do better to act like a combination of an honest policeman on the beat, deterring and punishing dishonest behavior, and in impartial referee, trying to make sure everyone is playing the game honestly. But no doubt government officials used to mingling with the corporate superclass would not be comfortable in the roles of honest cop or impartial referee.


Anonymous said...

As a result of this case 43 states passed legislation limiting eminent domain. Interestingly, NJ is one of the states that has yet to embrace the concept of citizens property rights and continues to be a center of political corruption.

Steve Lucas

Rich Rostrom said...

43 states have passed laws purporting to limit eminent domain abuse. But in several instances the laws were crafted to give the appearance of such limits, but not actually restrain local authorities.