PawSox Eminent Domain Language Reminds Us What’s Going On

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Some welcome focus on the eminent domain aspect of the proposed PawSox stadium deal should awaken Rhode Islanders to what is really happening, here.   The Associated Press reports:

One of the two bills being considered as part of the legislative package would remove the phrase “blighted and substandard” from the definition of a redevelopment agency. It also changes the wording of state law so that, rather than preventing redevelopment agencies from constructing buildings for residential, commercial, or industrial use, it authorizes them to do so.

To be sure “blighted and substandard” is a subjective guide.  One expects that if the government wants a piece of property, it will find a way to call it “substandard” regardless.  Changing the language, however, is a reminder of the expansion of this mechanism for seizing land or, in this case, giving the government the upper hand in negotiations with a property owner that a private organization wouldn’t have.

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Most folks who spend time considering public policy can justify the use of eminent domain to advance public infrastructure.  If some road, track, canal, or whatever would be a huge boon to the area, a single property owner could hold his or her entire region hostage over a property value that would not exist if it were not for the public project.

That rationale begins to wear thin when the government is building something isolated, like a school building or public safety complex.  Still, even some strong conservatives can see their way to accepting that sort of use.  (My view is that it cedes too much to the notion that the government is the real owner of all property, and individuals can only own, at best, inheritable development rights.)

At the other end of the question, a great many people object to the notion that government can take property from one private entity and give it to another simply because it proclaims that the receiver has a better use for it.  This PawSox deal is just like that, only with a patina of justification by keeping ownership in government hands, leasing to a single-use tenant.

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