Viewpoint: Eminent domain abuse still thrives in Winnebago County

Property owners east of Winnebago Road and south of U.S. 20 are waiting to see what the next step will be in the county’s proposed enterprise zone in that area. A Springfield bureaucrat is due to arrive April 28, supposedly to conduct a meeting and tell the landowners what’s what.

One of those who might be affected by this plan is Tony Jardine. He lives on a wooded 5-acre tract surrounded by 40 acres of cultivated farmland, which he leases to others.

“We love it down here. I’m not willing to sell,” said Jardine. He and his wife moved to the Winnebago area from Rockford’s east side, seeking a quieter and more peaceful lifestyle. Jardine, who is legally blind, is retired. Mostly he just wants to be left alone to enjoy his property and the rest of his life.

He said he already has been contacted by a real estate agent wanting to know if he’d like to sell out. When he asked the agent who told him he (Jardine) might be willing to sell, the agent said he was so informed by Randy Olson.

Olson, a member of the Winnebago County Board, is leading the charge to bring about the enterprise zone. Critics say he believes the county ought to be in the real estate business and not only that, but in the development business as well, in conflict with the private sector.

Olson got knocked out of the box when he tried to bring in a pig slaughterhouse in southwest Rockford. Residents were outraged and squelched the project. The company now is facing another wave of criticism and objections in Stephenson County.

Potentially affected property owners fear they will be run through the courthouse meatgrinder and come out “Puri’d.” So a few of them are beginning to organize and are in the early stages of forming a plan to fight the development program.

It will not be the first battle of this type in northern Illinois or in Winnebago County. Back in 2002 in DeKalb County, a resident of Pierce Township hauled the county into court because the county said “no” to her request to rezone her 30-acre homestead for residential use.

The judge did not see it her way and upheld the county’s landuse plan, saying his ruling “lays the seed for developing concepts which help balance the need to preserve farmland and…allow for reasoned and measured growth.”

DeKalb County’s landuse plan is considered the best in the state. “DeKalb County has never discouraged growth and development,” said County Planning Director Paul Miller. “To the extent that it occurs, it should occur in and around the cities, in part because that’s where the services are” (

Another blatant example of this kind of chicanery was the case of Tom Ditzler and the county’s ham-handed seizure of his property to build a road that was not needed and is now under-used. Critics claim the road was aimed in large measure for the benefit of private developers.

Underlying these, and several other cases, is a festering national problem—eminent domain abuse. More and more, eminent domain is being used as an economic development tool rather than a course of last resort.

The argument from government planners’ perspective is simple. Attorney Scott Bullock of the Institute for Justice puts it this way: “Every home, church, or corner store would produce more jobs and tax revenue if it were a Costco or a shopping mall” (

The politicos are hypnotized by the carrot of more revenue dangled by developers in these deals. All they see is a stream of big bucks, and they do not consider the effects on the taxpayer and property owner nor his rights.

“Land is one of the most important factors in local economic development,” said planner Edward Blakely. “Without control of land, local development is essentially impossible. A local or community development plan will be thwarted by its inability to furnish suitable sites and/or buildings for selected projects,” he said. Notice nothing is said about the rights of the land or building owners.

According to the Reason Foundation, between 1998 and 2002, more than 10,000 instances involved eminent domain seizures of property for the benefit of private parties … taking land from one owner and giving it to another individual for development.

The Fifth Amendment of the Constitution specifies that land shall only be taken for “public benefit” and that the owner or owners shall be properly compensated when it is necessary for government to do so.

The problem is that governments, with the aid of the courts, have greatly broadened the definition of public benefit. Illinois has gone a step further and refined its eminent domain statute to include something called “quick take.” That means government can grab your property now and pay you for it when they get around to it…maybe. Ask Tom Ditzler.

The foundation found that nationally, eminent domain in urban development projects tends to be: arbitrary, (driven by local politics instead of standards and objective criteria); inequitable (granting big and well-connected developers an advantage over existing homeowners and businesses); serving private purposes (becoming a legal way for the developers to sidestep the conventional real estate market and force other property owners to sell to the developer as the developer rakes in substantial monetary gains); and lacking in substantive limits (because the legal criteria for blight designations in an area are so broad, they do not restrain the use of eminent domain for redevelopment purposes).

Despite the claims of planners and many city officials, a broad-based study found eminent domain too often is the first—not the last—resort in these development projects.

Many times, the affected properties are first identified by private investors and then condemned by the cities to sell the land to the developers. In addition, many times the redevelopment agreement between the city and the developer contains hefty subsidies for the developers.

The U.S. Supreme Court, sometime this spring or summer, is to rule in the case of Kelo vs. City of New London. This is a case in Connecticut where the city wants to level an entire neighborhood of historic housing in order to build upscale condos, toney restaurants and other big-ticket projects.

The courts, in the past, have not been friendly to private property rights. They seem to agree that it’s fine for cities to grab your property if they wish and give it to a developer who will produce something that will give the cities more money. If that precedent is allowed to stand, property rights, as understood and spelled out by the Founding Fathers, will be largely meaningless.

As authors Staley and Blair assert in Eminent Domain, Private Property, and Redevelopment–an Economic Development Analysis: “Cities should work with developers to accommodate property rights protections rather than provide ways…to circumvent them. In the long run, this will create a business climate more supportive of property rights, greater investment certainty, and a more cohesive community than allowing livelihoods and residents to be subjected to the whims of political expediency and majority politics.”

From the April 20-26, 2005, issue

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