In which the History Geek decries that perversion of natural rights known as Life, Liberty, and... eminent domain?
Apparently, a Philadelphia-area school district has thought better about
trying to take a neighboring property through eminent domain:
To the school board of Chester County's Great Valley district, Patrick and Karen Cassidy's 1.5-acre property, just over a fence a few feet from a new wing under construction at the high school, looked mighty attractive.
If the board could buy it and tear down the Cassidy house, the land could serve as a staging area for the school construction. Later, the parcel, which is bordered on three sides by district land, could be turned into much-needed athletic fields.
To the Cassidys, however, the "parcel" was their home and a spacious, partly wooded yard.
"Everything I'm used to is here," Patrick Cassidy said in a recent interview in the living room of the one-story pine house he and his father built 25 years ago in East Whiteland Township. "I've built every stick and stone, I've laid every tile, put in every piece of drywall, every piece of trim. Why would I want to go" anywhere else?
The clash between those viewpoints sparked a contentious nine-month battle that was resolved only this month, leaving hard feelings on both sides.
The dispute serves as a cautionary tale for school boards acquiring land for nonessential purposes. It also comes at a time when property rights advocates across the country have pushed back against the government's power to acquire land for public use, known as "eminent domain."
Great Valley still needs land for expansions, but will be more careful how it goes about acquiring it, said school board member Jay Levin, the board president until earlier this month. "Any district that went through something like this... is going to be a little gun-shy."
The dispute began in 2002, when the district planned to expand the high school and needed more land to meet open-space zoning requirements.
District officials approached Eleanor Cassidy, Patrick Cassidy's mother, seeking to buy about 4.5 acres, next door to Patrick and Karen Cassidy's property. Eventually, she agreed, selling her house and the land for $625,000, but Patrick and Karen Cassidy said she was bullied into selling by the threat of eminent domain. She was allowed to stay in her house until she died in 2004, but regretted her decision, they said. "She said to me, 'That's the worst thing I ever did,' " Karen Cassidy said. "I said, 'Mom, it's the only thing you could do.' "
Patrick and Karen Cassidy said they told district officials repeatedly they were not interested in selling their property, which is bordered on one side by the high school and on two other sides by the still-vacant land the district bought from Eleanor Cassidy.
But in February, the school board passed a resolution calling for the acquisition of their land and house "by either negotiated agreement or eminent domain," and then filed court papers to condemn the property.
Levin said the goal was a "friendly condemnation," in which both sides agree to a sale that would include tax advantages to the seller. "The friendly condemnation was our entire plan, our entire basis to move forward," he said.
Friendly condemnation? Wow, that's almost as good a piece of oxymoronic doublespeak as I can recall! What about filing paperwork to force someone to sell their home can be described as "friendly?"
The Cassidys didn't see it that way. Eminent domain was the "big stick they have," Patrick Cassidy said. "Even if they don't come out and actually threaten with it, it's always there."
The Cassidys began talks with the district, fearing that if they did not, their home would be taken against their wishes, they said. But their goal was to keep the house and land. "I would rather die than have someone come and take my house," Karen Cassidy said. "If they can come and take everything away, what's the value of your life; what's the point?"
Patrick Cassidy seriously injured his back soon after the February board meeting, leaving him bedridden for months. But help arrived in the person of Audrey Van Loan, a regular at school board meetings who has often jousted with district officials.
Though Van Loan did not know the Cassidys, the board's actions outraged her, she said. "I said, 'This is America, and we should feel safe and secure in our homes; that they're not to be taken away... to build a playing field," she said. She put handouts in mailboxes and posted them in stores. One said, for example, "The Great Valley School District is using eminent domain to seize a private home and property!... Tell your school board members you are outraged and you want them to cease this action."
Van Loan's campaign hit a chord. "The feeling was, if it could happen to [the Cassidys], it could happen to anyone - no one is safe," she said. "The school district didn't need to do this."
As many as 70 people turned out for school board meetings, and many showed up month after month.
Levin says Van Loan distorted the facts; the board still believed, he said, that the two sides would reach an agreement. But it was besieged by residents convinced it was trying to force the Cassidys out. "Any time those two nasty words - eminent domain - are used... it is interpreted as negative, and you cannot do anything to fix that," he said. "Eventually, we had to put up the white flag and throw in the towel."
In November, the board scuttled the purchase attempt; early this month, it withdrew the condemnation filing. "It's over," Levin said.
The experience left the Cassidys thankful but shaken. "A lot of people that we don't know took the time out of their lives to help us," Patrick Cassidy said. "It's very humbling - when you're down and everything is crumbling and people come out and pull you back from the edge... . There are a lot of good people out there.
"I've finally been able to start sleeping," he added. "But I still have a fear that something is going to happen. I can't have a sense of security... the security of feeling that I've provided a nice home for my family... . Maybe, over time, if it all calms down, it will come back."
Now, kiddies, pull up a chair by the fire-- except for you, California Teacher Guy, who rubs our faces in the fact that we're freezing while you are basking in toasty warmth, while the History Geek explains a bit about an idea called "natural rights."
Natural rights were first described by Thomas Hobbes, who is so much more than the inspiration for a cartoon tiger. Hobbes was a philosopher who famously talked about life being "nasty, brutish, and short;"-- quite the cheery fellow. John Locke, another philosopher, in his Two Treatises on Government, characterized these natural rights as "life, liberty, and property." An American writer named Thomas Jefferson later changed the formula a bit to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" in a little thing he wrote called the Declaration of Independence.
But anyway, one could definitely say that trying to jealously guard our property-- since taxation is the taking of property, at least a part of it, and our ancestors took umbrage at not having a say in having their property taken from them-- was a prime cause of the American Revolution. And later on, the potential future theoretical taking of property (which many thought a person had no moral right in the first place) was claimed to be a cause of another nasty little bit of work known by the imprecise moniker of "The Civil War" (When is war ever civil?) in the mid-19th century.
But, as Arlo Guthrie famously said, I'm not here to talk about that.
I'm here to talk about "eminent domain." Eminent domain arose as a royal prerogative in English common law in the Saltpeter Case, in which the King seized a mine from a private owner so that ammunition for a war could be manufactured. Traditionally, the understanding has been that property could be forced to be sold to the government for a fair price only to promote the public good, such as for the building of railroads or highways or to fulfill other community needs.
Lately, however, eminent domain has been perverted to support the taking of property from one private person to enrich other private entities, such as developers. Cities have been convinced to cooperate in this endeavor on the promise of increased tax revenue that would then be created by taking relatively inexpensive homes and replacing them with condominiums or an aquarium and conference center or a hardware store, among other things. And our United States Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of such actions in the 2005 case of Kelo v. City of New London. Since the Kelo decision, the pace of these spurious condemnations has indeed accelerated, especially since many localities and states (such as New York and New Mexico) are now considering their own laws curtailing the practice.
Now, the Great Valley School district wanted the Cassidys' property so that the heavy equipment could access their construction site. Later it would probably be turned into a playing field of some sort.
The need here does not seem to rise to the level that a reasonable person would agree justifies the forced sale of someone's home. Shame on the Great Valley school board. They no doubt have a lot of p.r. work to do to clean the egg off their faces on this one.