What is interesting (and seems problematic) to me about Eminent Domain is the idea that an individual stakeholder can singlehandedly obstruct the public process or the public interest. In the United States – where individualism is cherished and celebrated as a national and historical mainstay – imagery of a self-empowered individual fighting a grander, collective force is often celebrated (Daniel Barnz’s Won’t Back Down, Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead) and diffused through society. In the Contemporary Urban Issues textbook, the “Legal Basis for Planning” chapter points to evidence that the court systems more often than not side with private property owners rather than with the state and local governments. While a case-by-case study of the different trials cited by the textbook are beyond the scope of this post, I feel that it is necessary to parse the implications for such decisions. Ultimately, I would like to answer the question: does an individual’s right to property supersede the public interest? However, this post will focus on an issue far more local in nature.
In my opinion, the Stop the Beach Renourishment v. Florida Department of Environmental Protection case in 2010 was a generally positive shift in the eminent domain/”taking” issue. Here in New Jersey, beachfront homeowners taking issue against beach renourishment projects are a relatively frequent spectacle. In the case of Hurricane Sandy, Republican Governor Chris Christie took a populist turn and labeled homeowners’ worries over losing views and property values to higher dunes as “bullshit”. While the concerns that residents contended are valid to varying degrees (after all, they are paying top dollar for their property), the dune replenishment – however marginal in nature – are serving a good that is quite public by nature. If entire towns are made safer at the opportunity cost of a slightly obstructed view of the ocean, what leg to property owners have to stand on? Dunes’ effectiveness in absorbing wave energy and mitigating storm surge is well documented, and such programs are undergone on a regular basis.
The crux of the issue is state action bringing about what is perceived as negative consequences to a select group of property owners. Should beach states like New Jersey and Florida have carte blanche to protect entire communities? Yes, but to a certain extent. Cooperation and involvement of multiple stakeholders is necessary for sustainable and healthy communities, and no one stakeholder should control the discourse that a project such as beach nourishment (with such wide implications) has. But because the good being served is indeed so public, I believe that as a society we should reconsider whose rights we are actually protecting and privileging. While beach renourisument is only a microcosm of the larger issue at stake here, viewing eminent domain and taking through this framework could be useful for a safer future.