Some communities in Illinois are pursuing a controversial strategy of using eminent domain for economic development purposes, but some business owners are pushing back.
William Gee’s family has operated New China, a restaurant near a busy part of Fox River Grove, since 1975. The village has been working to buy up the entire block of rental homes and businesses to turn it into a retail area with residential apartments. Gee said the village has yet to offer him and others a value for their properties that they deem fair.
“Eminent domain was not designed for taking private property to go and make more money,” Gee said. “They want to level the whole block.”
Village officials voted to move forward with the process of acquiring Gee’s property in September.
In a high-profile Supreme Court case, Kelo v. the city of New London, the court ruled that a city may invoke its right of eminent domain, typically used for road or other infrastructure, to buy property from one owner and sell it off to another private owner for the purposes of economic development.
“People were outraged when the court came out against private property rights,” said Matt Miller, senior attorney at the nonprofit Goldwater Institute, who filed a statement to the court hoping to persuade it to side with individual property rights.
“Rather than the government taking that property and using it for public use, they would take your property and put it to what they considered a higher private use, giving it to a private developer so that they could develop something better.”
He said governments are often more inclined to consider mechanisms like this when they’re facing financial pressure.
Ten days after Fox River Grove made the decision to move on the properties, a majority of the city of Bloomington officials told administrators that they wanted to consider eminent domain “on the table” for an unnamed stretch of properties there.
“It’s an opportunity for the community to say ‘we want this property to perform in a different way,” said Bloomington City Councilman Scott Black, who was the muse for the idea in a working group. “When done properly, any properties that are obtained via eminent domain would benefit the entire community. It can produce a draw, an anchor, to an area that is underperforming.”
Forty-four states enacted eminent domain reforms after the Kelo verdict, Illinois included, Miller said,
Illinois’ weakness, he said, lies in the ability to designate a property as “blighted” or abandoned and in severe need of repair.
“Illinois enacted weak reforms and what we’re seeing now is that eminent domain can continue in that state,” he said. “If you’re unlucky enough to have a business next door to a blighted property, once your area is declared blighted, the government can use eminent domain to take your property.
Gee said he hopes that village officials will come up with a price for his property that considers the value of the building and business within it.
“What they offered was not inviting,” he said. “My parents bought the building back in 1975 for almost $200,000. They came in and offered $332,000 more than forty years later. That’s not a fair shake.”