Eminent domain, by any other name . . . still stinks

Imagine you come home from work one day to a notice on your front door that you have 45 days to demolish your house, or the city will do it for you.  Oh, and you’re paying for it.

This is happening right now in Montgomery, Ala., and here is how it works: The city decides it doesn’t like your property for one reason or another, so it declares it a “public nuisance.”  It mails you a notice that you have 45 days to demolish your property, at your expense, or the city will do it for you (and, of course, bill you).

Your tab with the city will constitute a lien on your property, and if you don’t pay it within 30 days (or pay your installments on time; if you owe over $10,000, you can work out a deal to pay back the city for destroying your home over a period of time, with interest), the city can sell your now-vacant land to the highest bidder.

Alabama law empowers municipalities to do just this.  Officials can demolish structures that they determine, “due to poor design, obsolescence, or neglect, have become unsafe to the extent of becoming public nuisances…and [are] causing or may cause a blight or blighting influence on the city and the neighborhoods in which [they are] located.”  Keep in mind, so-called standards like “obsolescence” are so vague they can mean anything, so even a well-maintained home that government officials don’t like the look of can be fed to the bulldozers.

While this may sound like eminent domain for private gain, it’s not.  This is a completely different section of Alabama’s code that the city of Montgomery is now abusing habitually to tear down homes it does not like in a predominantly African American community — once home to Rosa Parks.

Jim Peera, who fought the city for years to keep a property he was rehabilitating himself — the kind of entrepreneurial private redevelopment that should be encouraged, especially in this economy — obtained copies of demolition records that indicate hundreds of homes and properties have been demolished over the past five years in Montgomery.  Some may have posed an immediate threat to public health and safety — but that was certainly not the case with all of them.

Consider Jimmy McCall.  Jimmy was in the process of building from the ground-up a home for his family when he was notified it was slated for demolition.  After one failed attempt to bulldoze the half-completed home, the city came back under this state law and got what they were fighting for: Jimmy’s would-be dream home was demolished, and he was stuck with the bill.

How could building a home be considered a public nuisance, and not economic development — which is ultimately the goal of the city’s efforts?