Frustrated by years of futile negotiations with the Old Dominion Boat Club regarding its waterfront parking lot, Mayor Bill Euille on Tuesday said the city was prepared to use eminent domain.
This would be wrong, for many reasons.
Philosophically, the idea of government taking property from an unwilling private individual or entity is unjustified unless doing so meets a vital public need. Justifiable examples of eminent domain include building a much-needed highway or a fire station in a neighborhood without one.
Now, a waterfront plaza undoubtedly would look nicer than the club’s parking lot, but it’s certainly not an essential public need.
The ability to own private property and freedom of speech are the two pillars of democracy. The security of all of our other rights rest on them. These rights are eroded each time eminent domain is utilized — at the city, state or federal level — to take property for anything other than an essential need.
It might be tempting for residents to favor seizing the parking lot. But remember: If one person’s property is not protected, then no one’s property is ultimately safe.
But this isn’t just a philosophical argument; it’s also a matter of fairness. The club legally owns this lot. Because most members do not live within walking distance, the lot is a critical component of the group’s ability to continue functioning.
Also, the last thing the city needs is another drawn-out, expensive legal fight. Surely no one at City Hall is under the illusion that the boat club is going to roll over without a protest if officials invoke eminent domain, right? This move would embroil the city in yet another protracted legal battle, with fees likely costing hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars.
There’s a final reason why eminent domain is the wrong move: the smell factor. Many in Alexandria already accuse our elected officials of being too cozy with developers and engaging in backroom deals. Taking the club lot and building a plaza will directly benefit four entities far more than anyone else: Carr Hospitality, JBG, EYA and CityInterests — the companies that own and want to develop land along the waterfront.
Taking land from one private entity that directly and financially benefits another private entity was at the heart of the Supreme Court case of Kelo v. City of New London in 2005. In her dissent (the court ruled 5-4 in favor of eminent domain), then-Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote: “Any property may now be taken for the benefit of another private party, but the fallout from this decision will not be random. The beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms.”
O’Connor’s words apply here. The city should not use eminent domain against the Old Dominion Boat Club. It’s not fair, it’s not smart and it would disproportionately benefit out-of-town developers at the expense of an Alexandria institution. It is the wrong move.