Alabama Undermines its Post-Kelo Eminent Domain Reform Law

In the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s controversial 2005 decision in Kelo v. City of New London, which ruled that state and local governments could condemn property for transfer to private parties for “economic development,” 44 states passed eminent domain reform laws intended to curtail abusive condemnations. Many of the new laws only pretended to curb the use of eminent domain without actually doing so. But Alabama was one of the exceptions, passing one of the nation’s better post-Kelo reforms. Unfortunately, as John Ross of Reason explains, the Alabama state legislature has now largely reversed its post-Kelo reform law, opening the door for condemnations that benefit powerful private interests at the expense of the poor and politically weak:

This month, Alabama Governor Robert Bentley signed into law a bill that allows local officials to condemn private property and turn it over to private developers.

Alabama’s statutes had contained some of the best protections in the nation for property owners; officials couldn’t seize property for private development unless it was a true threat to human health and safety.

Welcome back to the bad old days.

Advertised as a tool to attract industry to Alabama, the new law (the Major 21st Century Manufacturing Zone Act) expands tax subsidies for companies that open a manufacturing facility of at least 250 acres. It also allows municipal officials to seize property for “private uses and purposes imbued with a public interest” like auto factories, biomedical facilities, and pharmaceutical plants.

Officials can now condemn property they deem “blighted,” which, since the statutory definition of the term is so subjective, could be nearly any property.

As I discuss in this article, such “economic development” takings not only often victimize the politically weak for the benefit of powerful private interests, but also regularly fail to actually produce the development that supposedly justified the condemnation in the first place. That’s exactly what happened in Kelo itself, where nothing has been built on the condemned property, even eight years after the Supreme Court’s decision in the case.

Due in considerable part to widespread political ignorance (most voters lack the time and expertise needed to tell the difference between effective reform laws and purely symbolic ones), state legislators often were able to pass off cosmetic reform laws as genuine solutions to the problem eminent domain abuse. Recent events in Alabama highlight the risk that even strong post-Kelo reform laws can be undermined as the public understandably shifts its attention to new issues.