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Court widens scope of property seizure

It rules 5 to 4 that local governments can take homes and other property for private development.

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Government officials do not violate the US Constitution when they seize and demolish homes and businesses to make room for private development.

In a major decision that narrows the constitutional protection of property owners, the US Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the Fifth Amendment's Takings Clause authorizes government seizure of private property even when it merely offers a benefit to the public, rather than actual public use.

The 5-to-4 decision means that state and local officials can continue to use the government's power of eminent domain to take private property and turn it over to a private builder as a form of economic development. Writing for the majority, Justice John Paul Stevens said that a century of case law interpreting the Takings Clause "dictates" that the court adopt a permissive interpretation of the government's eminent-domain power.

In a dissent, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor warned that the ruling could bring dangerous consequences for owners of homes and other properties. "Under the banner of economic development, all private property is now vulnerable to being taken and transferred to another private owner, so long as it might be upgraded," she writes.

The ruling is a major victory for planning and development officials in economically depressed regions struggling to spark economic renewal. The decision will make it easier to encourage some private development projects by exempting them from the usual requirement that property be purchased on the open market.

At the same time, the court's action marks a crushing defeat for a group of New London, Conn., residents who filed suit in December 2000 to block efforts by the city to seize and demolish their homes and businesses to make room for a 90-acre office, hotel, and housing complex. Facing the wrecking ball are 15 homes and businesses owned by seven families in the city's Fort Trumbull neighborhood.

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