Lowball Watch — New York

The Rockland/Westchester Journal News of May 7, 2019, reports that in the taking of a privately owned child care center, the condemnor offered $90,960, but the trial court awarded $469,111 plus $233,391 in additional  fees. The Appellate Division affirmed.

See https://www.lohud.com/story/news/local/rockland/spring-valley/2019/05/07/spring-valley-day-care-payment/1130260001/

Lowball Watch — Kansas

Scripps Media reports on line that In Overland Park, Kansas, a local condemor offered the owners $9000 for a small taking to improve a road. When the owner rejected the offer, appraisers awarded $19,000. The bone of contention was a large sycamore tree on the taken land for which the condemnor offered nothing.

See Sarah Plake, Homeowner Wins Lawsuit, Doubles Award in Overland Park, Scripps Media, Apr. 24, 2019, https://www.kshb.com/news/local-news/homeowner-wins-lawsuit-doubles-award-in-overland-park-eminent-domain-case

Remember Kelo?

In 2005 — that’s some 14 years ago — the US Supreme Court held 5 to 4 that the city of New London, Connecticut, could use eminent domain to take Suzette Kelo’s home, and her entire unblighted neighborhood in order to raze it and turn it over to a private developer, to be replaced with privately-built, profit-making upscale condos, shops and a marina — not for anything that a reasonably intelligent, English-speaking person, would describe as a “public use” required by the Constitution. No, it was to benefit highly paid hi-tech employees of the nearby Pfizer pharmaceutical company, and by a trickle-down process to increase local taxes. The court’s majority bought into this nonsense by accepting the city’s phony assurances that its plan was sound and thoroughly vetted. But it wasn’t. It turned out not to be worth the paper it was written on.

After blowing some $100 million in public funds, nothing was built on the taken site. Nothing, as in bobkes, zip, nada. Pfizer, for whose benefit this was done waited until its tax benefit were used up, and then sold its nearby facility, and moved out of town, taking some 1400 jobs with it. You can find the pictures of the vacant site where the home of Kelo and her neighbors once stood, in the Volokh Conspiracy blog. Check it out.

Taking the Preakness Horse Race by Eminent Domain?

Here we go again, folks. The city of Baltimore, evidently unchastened by its unsuccessful attempt of a couple of decades ago to take the Colts NFL franchise, is trying to take the Preakness horse race (and the rights thereto) by eminent domain. If that strikes you as absurd, join the club. But absurd as it may sound, there is a precedent of sorts for this attempt to abuse the power of eminent domain. A few years back, the city of Oakland, California, tried to take the NFL franchise of the Oakland Raiders in order to prevent them from moving to Los Angeles. We wrote about it at the time. The California Supreme Court held that doing so met the “public use” constitutional limitation on the power of eminent contained in the Fifth Amendment. But eventually, California courts came to their senses and held that “public use” or not, the taking was impermissible because it would be a violation of, of all things, the Interstate Commerce Clause of the Constitution.

So, after providing lots of employment to a bunch of lawyers (including inter alia  your faithful servant) the Raiders moved to Los Angeles. But it didn’t work out — after a while the Raiders moved back to Oakland thus demonstrating that the market, not the folks in city hall, has the last word when it comes to running a successful NFL team. See Gideon Kanner, Revisiting Baltimore’s Failed Hail Mary, LA Daily Journal, April 2, 2009, at p. 6.

Baltimore also talked a good game about taking the Pimlico/Preakness horse race back in 2009. See Gideon Kanner, Maryland’s Bad Track Record, LA Daily Journal, April 17, 2009, at p, 6. But that effort went nowhere.

Now Baltimore is trying it again. You can get the detailed legal story on the Volokh Conspiracy of March 26th, 2019, wherein Professor Ilya Somin goes into the legalities (or illegalities of the matter, as the case may be) in some detail. We recommend that you read his piece if you have an interest in this fershluggeneh field of law.

What puzzles us is that in all these cases the avowed purpose of the attempted taking was to prevent the Raiders (and Colts) from moving out of town. But no one, to the best of our recollection, based the opposition to these attempted takings on the constitutional right to travel. Though the law is plain that Americans have every right to move across the fruited plain as they wish, no one, to the best of our recollection raised that legal point as a defense to the taking of the Raiders NFL franchise in order to keep them in Oakland, even though the city was candid about its desire to prevent the Raiders from moving to Los Angeles. Which is academic because the Raiders won on another theory. But who knows, maybe that defense will be raised now.

So stay tuned and see how it all turns out.

Honolulu Choo-Choo

No sooner did the California planned “bullet train” between the San Francisco bay area and points  south meet its demise at the hands of our new Governor, that word reaches us of an even greater planning, engineering, environmental and fiscal disaster. This one comes to us from   Hawaii. If you have any interest at all in the construction of public works and the acquisition of land for them, you must read the front-page story in today’s Wall Street Journal. See Dan Frosch and Paul Overberg, Rail Line Runs into Trouble in Paradise, March, 23-24, 2019, p. A1.

It’s a story that defies our efforts to sum it up concisely, but fortunately, the authors have done it for us, so we will have to be content with just quoting the pertinent part of the Wall Street Journal article, starting on the front page:

“Among the cascade of problems Honolulu pushed ahead before fully planning the project, and nearly 100 contracts had to be reworked, causing delays. The city began construction before fully checking Native Hawaiian burial grounds, and a judge halted  the project for over a year. Planners built too close to power lines, so Honolulu must shell out hundreds of million of dollars to move them.

“Dogged by such blunders, the project has seen its price tag soar to more than $9 billion from about $5 billion. The cost overruns are among the largest that transportation experts say they’ve ever seen. The cost has led to an extra excise tax on businesses, which can affect the price of goods and services, and it has hit tourists through an expanded hotel tax.

“The federal government has suspended payment of its share of the budget. And a recent state audit said officials misled the public about the train line’s shaky finances.

“A federal grand jury is now looking into the project. Last month, the municipal body overseeing it received three subpoenas from the U.S. Attorney for Hawaii, demanding files on consultant contracts, correspondence with agencies, relocation payments and other records. Federal officials haven’t disclosed the focus of the sweeping probe.

“Honolulu elevated rail line shows how badly municipalities can stumble in tackling giant infrastructure project, especially when they are powered by political urgency. . . .”  *  *  *  “Others wonder how well will a commuter line befits island life, since stations won’t be within easy walk of celebrated destinations  such bas Waikiki Beach and Diamond Head park.”

We could go on and on, but we won’t. Suffice it to note (in addition to the above missteps) that “steel cables inside precast concrete sections that form the trackbed will be monitored for20 years because some failed during construction.” (emphasis added). You don’t need an engineering degree to reflect of this one.

Once upon a time America was noted and admired for its engineering prowess in designing and building massive infrastructure projects. This was done with primitive 19th century technology and largely with the power of human muscles. But now, it would appear, we can’t even install steel-cable reinforced  concrete structures without them failing even as they are being installed.

Lowball Watch — Indiana

The Cherokee Tribune reports a jury award over twice the city’s offer. The subject property was commercial, improved with a glass shop. The city offered $160,000. City’s appraisers opined to a value of $145,000. The jury verdict was $305,000, plus interest. The court also awarded the owners attorney fees in the amount of $26,000. Devin Zimmerman, Jury Awards Kokomo Glass Shop $305,000 in Eminent Domain, Cherokee Tribune, March 18, 2019.


Lowball Watch — Texas

Businesswire.com (Feb.25, 209) reports that a jury in Houston rejected the state DOT’s $3.2 million valuation for a partial taking of a 4-acre parcel of land for a highway, leaving a 9-acre remainder in the owner’s hands. The jury followed closely the owner’s appraisal and awarded $12.2 Million. The award was roughly four times the state’s evidence.

See Eminent Domain Lawsuit Results in $12.2 Million Jury Award to Property Owner, Reports Deal Sikes, Feb. 25, 2018 at https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20190225005849/en/Eminent-Domain-Lawsuit-Results-12.2-Million-Jury

Lowball Watch — Louisiana

The New Orleans Advocate of February 22, 2019 reports an end to the nine-year legal battle between St. Bernard Parish and the privately owned Violet Dock port facility. The Parish offered $14 million, but after a fight over the right to take (which the Parish won) and two trials, the Louisiana Supreme Court affirmed an award of $34 million (an addition of $16 million. The owners will also be entitled to interest and attorneys’ fees — stand by for those. https://www.theadvocate.com/new_orleans/news/article_2b102fb8-36c5-11e9-8925-531fb534fa36.html

See Ramon Antonio Vargas, St. Bernard Parish Can Keep Seized Riverside Facility, But at More Than Twice the Cost, New Orleans Advocate, Feb. 22, 2019.

[Editor’s note: In Louisiana, “parish” means “county.”]

Bye-Bye California Choo-Choo

The LA Times brings us the news that our newly elected governor Gavin Newsom has put the kibosh on his predecessor’s pet project, the ambitious 200 mph “bullet train” that would eventually run between San Diego and the San Francisco Bay area. The currently abuilding rail segment between Bakersfield and Merced is to be completed, but that will be it. At least for now. The Times cites “the project’s persistent cost overruns, mismanagement and delays” as factors that make the high speed train line unviable. It “will have to be reassessed.” Phil Willow and Taryn Luna, Gov. Gavin Newsom Pledges to Scale Back High-Speed Rail and Twin-Tunnels Projects in State of the State Speech, LA Times, Feb. 12, 2018.

Over the years, we have been critical of the efforts to build this “bullet” train because after its announcement, and after snookering the voters into approving what turned out to be a grossly inadequate bond issue, the project became mired in local politics over route selection — politicians wanted their locales to be served by the new train, while lots of their constituents did not, citing noise and safety concerns.

Also, along with this announcement stopping the “bullet train” fiasco, the new governor let it be known that he would scale down another one of his predecessor’s grandiose project — twin tunnels under the Sacramento delta, that would carry water from the wet part of northern California to the parched south. Only one tunnel is now to be built instead of two.

For additional commentary on cancellation of the LA to Bay Area misbegotten “bullet train” see the article by Joel Kotkin and co-author, appearing in the City Journal go to


Follow up. Coming on the heels of the semi-demise of California’s “bullet train” comes the news that the feds who have been feeding this fiscal disaster, want their money back. The are cancelling some $929 million in federal grants, and are about to demand that California repay the $2.5 billion that the feds have already forked over. Californians don’t like the idea of this claw-back. Looks like the makings of another intergovernmental donnybrook that is bound to wind up in the courts. Stay tuned.


No Springtime for Hitler in Austria, or, How Do you Say “Lowball” in German?

The New York Times brings the dispatch that the Austrian government took the house in Braunau am Inn in which Adolph Hitler was born, after years of unsuccessful negotiations with its owner. The government used a compulsory purchase order and awarded the owner the equivalent of $350,000 for the three-story apartment building. The owner sued to prevent the taking, but lost. She then sued for additional compensation in the District Court in Ried im Innkreis, which awarded the equivalent of $1.7 million, which was the exact amount claimed by the owner and testified to by her appraiser, and almost five times the amount of the government offer.

The purpose of the taking was to prevent the building from falling into the hands of neo-Nazis who might use it to celebrate Hitler’s memory. The actual future use of the taken building is unclear at this time. We gather from the Times write-up that the answer to this question is something of a hot potato as far as the Austrian government is concerned: Preserve it and risk being accused of perpetuating Hitler’s memory, or raze it and be accused of tampering with Austrian history.

For the Times story go to https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/07/world/europe/hitler-austria-house.html   It contains a picture of the subject property.

Afterthought. A well informed colleague has called our attention to a New Jersey case that echoes this one. No, no Hitler involvement in that one, but New Jersey courts have approved the taking of private property ostensibly for open space (even though the township had no plans  to put  the property to recreational uses after its taking). In other words, the New Jersey taking was  for the purpose of preventing a developer/land-owner from constructing perfectly legal homes because they would be “affordable to upper income families” but not serve the “public interest” of lower priced “assisted living facilities” or multifamily housing rather than one-family homes. Which inspires us to ask: if that is the law of New Jersey, then what the hell is the purpose of zoning laws which permits the construction of detached single-family homes, if the courts can by their subjective say-so require that those laws be ignored for the avowed purpose of judges engaging in subjective social engineering?

See Mt. Laurel Township v. MiPro Homes, 878 A.2d 38 (2006, N.J. App. Div.) affirmed 910 A.2d 617 (2008, N.J.).