Ethics in Urban Planning Essay
What is the law on eminent domain all about? Eminent Domain is the power of the State over all the properties within its jurisdiction, both public and private. The purpose being to empower the State to appropriate property for public use – for new and road widening projects, bridges, military installations, public parks and even urban renewal (Larson, 2004). In case of private properties, how does eminent domain apply? Well, properties that the Government deems as vital for public use and welfare can be seized from private owners based on the provisions of the law on eminent domain.
But the Constitution, particularly the Fifth Amendment, guaranties that “No person shall be … deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation” (Hornberger, 2005). Is the law on eminent domain ethical? The answer is an absolute no. It may be legal but it does not hold any moral definition. It is still classified as large-scale theft that is backed up by legal parameters.
We live based on the principles of morality that abhors theft. In fact, the customs and laws of all civilized societies prohibit any form of banditry.
In the exercise of our individual freedom, we as a people have the right to use our property in ways we deemed fit – unless we infringe on the rights of other people (Tenney, 1995). In our democratic system, do we exercise our right of suffrage to make stealing legal? It sounds like people casting their votes simply because they wanted your property sequestered. Where do ethics apply then? What are the consequences? Basically, the law on eminent domain was enacted to provide a leeway for the government in the planning of its developmental projects.
Projects include road improvement, probably runway extensions or perhaps public hospitals. Private lands are purchased by the government for this purpose, based on a fair market value and as guaranteed by the Constitution. This provision becomes necessary so that the government can proceed with development without the process of lengthy litigation. Lately however, the scenario has been altered with the law on eminent domain applied even on urban renewal. This is where the abuse of discretion engages a number of government officials, all in the guise of development.
This scheme is morally repugnant though it does not end at that point because with the eminent domain as the carrot stick, this marginally reduces the purchase price of the property. What has government got to do with it (Tenney, 1995)? Remember that development plans rests solely on the hands of government, so a slight deviation on the zoning area reclassification would normally affect property values. Imagine if your property lies on a commercial zone and the government suddenly establishes it as part of an industrial zone, the real estate property value is likely to plummet due to rising environmental concerns.
The consequence is you are likely to sell it at much reduced price. But this scheme is just the tip of the iceberg, as more devious schemes are in the offing. The most unforgiving plan of government involves the declaration of a specific area as suffering from urban blight. Blighted areas, for purposes of urban renewal, refers to areas that in the process of deterioration being a haven of uncontrolled vices (drug addicts, alcoholics and other scum of society) where the crime rate is really high or an area that is already rendered useless which may include vacant lands and air rights.
Who will then determine if the property falls under the category of blighted areas? This will be up to the discretion of the government and most likely this is where abuse is glaringly documented, particularly in cases where the government is in cahoots with property developers. When this happens, government has the right to raze the property and sell it to developers with the intention of making it into an attractive urban development (Blight, 2001). In most instances areas that are declared “urban blights” normally conforms to urban redevelopment.
Areas that suffer from these types of classifications are low-cost housing communities with correspondingly low revenues where homeowners who have been in domicile for years while paying regular amortization to secure rights to the property. In these instances, these homeowners are suddenly met with the prospects of relocation. With the area categorized as such, the real property value is extremely low that the proceeds of the sale are not even enough to pay for the downpayment for another unit in a new housing development site (Parlow, 2007). What about areas in commercial districts that have been subjected to the process of eminent domain?
The owner may have lived or conducted business in the area for the past twenty years but the government has the temerity to invoke the provisions of eminent domain to take control of said property simply because the adjacent school needs a playground or perhaps a football field. Where do ethics come in or is this just plain common sense? If you are the owner of the property, will you be not in arms to stop the proceedings? Where is morality then? We trumpet the virtues of democracy to the outside world and yet in our own backyard we practice anarchy (Parlow, 2007).
This will all redound to displacement of all families affected by the claws of eminent domain. Families will be evicted from their properties – good if there is a ready site for relocation at least people can endure the inconvenience. But in most cases no relocation areas have been secured. Families will now be subjected to the task of searching for a new place as a consequence of eviction. What about their transportation need to and from work, school for their children and perhaps the affordable medical services that were readily available in their previous area (Blight, 2001).
The final consequence maybe and I hope that this will not be met by evicted homeowners or storeowners or they could be relegated as the new scum of society, being degraded to a bunch of homeless citizens that have the potential of creating troubles for the government. The government shall have increased the problems associated with the housing needs and get the ire of the population. What then has this accomplished for the government in the end? Nothing, except perhaps that it compounds the problems of the locality (Hornberger, 2005).
The law really smacks moral decadence, for how can you humanly evict families from their abodes without paying them fairly. Some may have inherited the property and as an ancestral abode, no amount would suffice in return for its sentimental value in the same way that no amount could compensate for the Statue of Liberty, being the symbol of freedom that Americans deeply treasure. How can you possibly sell an heirloom – a gift from the people of France, this is no longer a question of ethics, not even morality though it borders on bad taste and greed. What are the effects?
Proponents of the measure on eminent domain will always sing the sad melody of development. Be that as it may, we can never stop development from happening because it is dictated by the social status of the locality. But can we not negotiate with property owners so they can also profit from the property they have tenuously preserved and paid for? It is more of a question of fair value for their property, an issue that is often ignored. Even for this gesture alone, the government, particularly the developers will benefit from the support and approval of the property owners.
Let us not bully our neighbors by invoking the right of eminent domain, because that simply will not work. Who then does not desire physical development? When it means convenience to the inhabitants, particularly interchanges, super-highways, a modern airport terminal, a dazzling sports arena, an upbeat school campus or a modern hospital. Urban development on formerly blighted areas will be a big boost to the local trade as new shopping malls, five-star hotels, office towers and condominiums will be constructed. The local labor force will benefit as well, since hundreds or maybe thousands of jobs will be made available.
It will be a shot in the arm for the local economy since development will encourage a lot of investors to take a chance on the improved infrastructure facilities. The government will likewise benefit from increased revenues and create more funds to finance the needs of local inhabitants. But most of all, this would drastically alter the locality’s image and skyline for the better. With a booming economy, the government can now plan ahead. Maybe exploit some more the bonanza that the new development concurred and build additional facilities to meet the increasing population requirements.
As the citizen’s quality of life improves, new facilities will be needed, housing shortage will be felt, traffic congestion is possible as more and more cars will ply the streets and entertainment will be the call of the majority. The problems associated with crime and security will quadruple, new personnel will be added, police cars and gadgets will be required by our law enforcement agencies. There will be no stopping, once the wheel of development starts to roll. Then when everything seems to have settled and everybody is accustomed to the set-up, the arms of development will try to break the already serene environment.
So the government will now invoke their right of eminent domain and the result, chaos strikes once again. It will be an unending cycle. The population will simply have to bear inconvenience and unfair treatment in the name of development. It is in the outlying implementation of eminent domain that government failed because officials can be motivated only with the expected revenues from the urban renewal project to disregard their main advocacy and moral obligation to its constituents – to promote, protect, and upheld the rights of the populace.
Conclusion The moral and ethical question of the law on eminent domain had been subjected to criticisms from all sectors of society. It may be an effective tool for government to spice up development, but it oftentimes falls oppressive to many property owners. Sadly, the people’s right to their property has been trampled once again with no less than the Supreme Court of the United States stamping its approval on the right of government to invoke the provisions of eminent domain. Consider this.
In 1954 the Supreme Court gave a ruling in a controversial case that “effectively gave government officials unlimited power to confiscate and redistribute lands”, arguing that “the concept of public welfare is broad and inclusive. The values it represents are spiritual as well as physical, aesthetic and monetary. It is within the power of the legislature to determine that the community should be beautiful as well as healthy, spacious as well as clean, well-balanced as well as carefully patrolled” (Tenney, 1995).
The comment of the High Court was indeed a chilling premonition since this gave government officials the legal right to evict anybody from their properties when necessary and at their convenience. In effect this erased the intentions of our forefathers and the framers of the Constitution the absolute right of individuals to hold on to their properties (Tenney, 1995). Just recently, in a new and daunting case of Kelo vs. City of New London, Connecticut, the High Court upheld the previous ruling of 1954.
In fact after due proceedings, a notice was posted at the door of the petitioner’s home stating that the petitioner have four months to vacate the property or else power police power will be used to prosecute the order based on the power of eminent domain (Larson, 2004). Is the ruling even fair? Is it morally correct to inflict undue suffering to the respondents? And is it ethical? The answer is no. That is why all the States of the Union are putting up legislations to curb the damning influence and abuse on the power of the law on eminent domain. How it will affect the future, your guess will be as good as mine!