RAY NOTHSTINE: Property rights, not eminent domain, first function of good government

by Ray Nothstine

Like all inherent rights, the right to private property tends to erode with the growth of government. While the American framers did not agree on everything, they were universal in their agreement that personal freedom and property rights were inseparable.

“The defense of private property is the standard by which ‘every provision’ of law, past and present, shall be judged,” declared Thomas Jefferson.

However, the possible annex of private land by CSX Transportation in Johnston County near Selma has created a firestorm and a backlash against the practice of eminent domain, which is the right of government to secure private land for “just” compensation.

Fight for the Farm 1

Eminent domain arguably reached its peak of power and abuse with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision of Kelo v. New London, when the high court ruled in 2005 that government could seize private land and transfer it to private developers.

In her dissent, former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor pointed out a significant moral hazard under the decision. O’Connor correctly surmised that business entities with more power and influence in the political process could collude with government to trample on the rights of less affluent or politically connected citizens to achieve their own economic interests.

The controversial decision resulted in a handful of states amending their constitutions to reinforce the protection of property rights. And over three dozen states passed laws as to address the abuse of power in Kelo.

Some legislatures in North Carolina made attempts to strengthen private property rights and contain the abuses under the interpretation of the public use clause within the Fifth Amendment. Unfortunately, those attempts have not only been weakened through the legislative process, but the already weak private property protection in North Carolina remains unchanged.

Trent Lassiter's family land in Johnston County includes The Farm, a venue that hosts weddings, music concerts and other events.

Trent Lassiter’s family land in Johnston County includes The Farm, a venue that hosts weddings, music concerts and other events.

Trent Lassiter, whose family is just one of the affected property owners approached by CSX, called the proposed seizure not only immoral but outside of the public interest. Lassiter insists that his family is already promoting economic benefits for the county through his event venue and says his family has owned the land for hundreds of years.

“There is a right way and a wrong way to do business,” says Lassiter. “What’s right is right and what is wrong is wrong. If you don’t want to sell it you shouldn’t have to sell it.”

Lassiter insists the publicity of the proposed seizure is garnering support for private property rights not just across North Carolina but the country.

There are certainly instances where eminent domain is constitutional and a public necessity. But those proposals should be rare and reflect the intent of the framers, not the interest of private developers who collude with a government that has an insatiable appetite for growth and tax revenue.

An amendment to North Carolina’s state constitution is needed to better protect private property rights and the rule of law across the state. Amending the constitution can specifically address abuses to the public use clause that results in cronyism and a culture where government is interested more in its growth and prosperity than its citizens’ rights.

After all, the purpose of a good and moral government is to secure the rights of the citizenry, which includes property.

Without changes to North Carolina law, Justice Clarence Thomas’ words in his Kelo dissent will ring all too true for Lassiter and other North Carolinians:

“Though citizens are safe from the government in their homes,” Thomas wrote, “the homes themselves are not.”