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Real Estate & Property Law: Kelo and Beyond
This is Serious!
By Greg Alvarez
Yesterday marked the first anniversary of me throwing out my thoughts on land use to all of you out there. I've enjoyed having the opportunity to do so, and hope to keep it up as we move along. You never can tell how these things go, but I still believe that the world of land use, and the questions it raises, continues to remain highly relevant as we move further and further away from the initial impact of Kelo. For those of you out there who are as conscious as I am to the events happening around us (and I'm sure, some of you moreso), you can see the stakes involved in decisions made by land use boards around the country each day. No, it's not always life and death. Not every homeowner needs that setback variance to build their new swimming pool on his/her property. A multi-billion dollar corporation won't crumble if they don't receive approval for a new outlet that adds to their 10,000-store fleet. But sometimes, these decisions do result in catastrophic consequences for those interested in the outcome.
Take for example the recent case in Clarksville, Tennessee, where a barber shop owner sought a rezoning on his house -- from residential to commercial. Ronald "Bo" Ward came before the City Council for the requested action to help increase the value of his property, which in turn would allow him to obtain a loan to pay off the debt he incurred to expand his shop. The Council voted against the application. In response, Ward pulled out a small handgun, announced, "Y'all have put me under. . . . I'm out of here," and proceeded to shoot himself in the head. Apparently he had relied on a favorable decision to determine whether he would live or die.
And on the other side of the globe, Yang Chunlin, a fifty-two year old out-of-work factory worker, decided to take up the cause of land confiscation going on across China in the midst of its rapid expansion. He circulated an open letter entitled "We want human rights, not the Olympics," and got 10,000 people to sign it. Reminiscent of Kelo, Yang sought to challenge the government's support for securing property for projects developed by private investors. Why the massive support for Yang? Activists argue that over a million people have been displaced in order to construct new sports venues for the coming Olympics in Beijing next summer. For his trouble, Yang was thrown in prison, chained for days in the same position, and assigned to clean up the waste produced by his fellow inmates. For his beliefs, he has been jailed under the catch-all "subverting state power" umbrella. It is unclear when he may be released.
Such stories only reinforce my prior beliefs of the importance of keeping an eye on land use matters going on virtually everywhere on Earth. Perhaps I get a little out of hand with my thesis that land use is this critical, but make your own judgments. Although rare, people take such matters to the extreme by making them life or death choices. There must be a reason. This can be quite serious stuff. As I started this whole endeavor, "The beauty of this unique world is that decisions on where to locate what, and how big, is a highly democratic affair, even greater than voting or serving on a jury." I still believe this. Considering an unemployed factory worker a half a world away can draw the attention of the national media over here, over a petition involving land use questions, reminds me how one person in the process can create a significant impact.