Amendment will protect property rights

By John R. Smith
Posted October 17 2006

Imagine this: Over the years, you have built up a business on property you own, or you have retreated to your retirement home to live out your years in peaceful contentment. One day, an imperious city official pounds on your door and tells you that you must move out because city hall is seizing your property to turn it over to a private developer for a yacht club project.

Think it can't happen? Think again. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Kelo vs. New London that under the U.S. Constitution, a city can take private property and transfer it to other private owners for economic development. Before Kelo, with just compensation, the government could seize your land only for legitimate public uses, such as schools or roads.

The Kelo verdict spoke to the issue of the rights of private property holders vs. the need for a community to redevelop blighted property. The court's decision in the case shifted much more power to government at the expense of the individual.

Locally, in the aftermath of Kelo, the city of Riviera Beach moved forward with a plan to condemn homes and businesses to make way for a luxury housing and yachting complex. National outrage and local alarm followed, as angry residents protested the possible taking of their property.

However, the silver lining in the Kelo decision was that each state could still make up its own mind about where it stood on the issue of property rights. In Florida, the Legislature moved quickly to set up a select committee to study the property rights issue, and to clarify Florida's position on property rights.

This spring, the Legislature enacted a new law, severely restricting government to take private property for traditional public uses, and prohibiting outright the taking of property for private development.

Property owners were relieved. Unless they lived in Riviera Beach, where on the night before Gov. Jeb Bush signed the new legislation, city officials attempted to circumvent it by signing an agreement that committed the city to condemn large tracts of private land if need be. Now the issue is in court.

This is an abuse-of-power issue, in which government uses its heft and purse to do whatever the politicians currently in power want to do. But the Kelo decision unified people across a wide political spectrum: Constitutional amendments are on the ballot in 11 states, including Florida, and 30 other states are taking legislative action as a result of Kelo.

If we lose our property because it helps the overall public good of society, that's one thing. But taking property for private use is an outrageous maneuver by government in the evolving eminent domain movement.

Floridians will have a chance to vote on Constitutional Amendment No. 8 in November, which will constitutionally prohibit the seizing of private property for the private benefit of others, absent a supermajority vote of the Legislature. It's important that this amendment gets passed, as it will assure property owners their rightful position, as envisioned by our forefathers.

The right to own private property without government interference is fundamental, and an American ideal. Palm Beach County residents and businesses should not face loss of their property for private development. This amendment will protect your homes and businesses from government confiscation to turn it over to other individuals for profit. Here locally, it's not the job of Riviera Beach to plunder the few to benefit the many. In this county, we don't need government taking our private property and turning it over to a private enterprise.

John R. Smith is chairman of Palm Beach County's BizPac and owner of a financial services company.