University faculty and students, along with distinguished scholars from outside universities, gathered to open up a discussion on the issues surrounding eminent domain on Friday, Feb. 10 in Magill Commons. Eminent domain is the right of a government or its agent to expropriate private property for public use, with compensation.
The conference, titled “Eminent Domain and the City: Government Action, Private Rights, and Public Purpose,” was envisioned by Karen Schmelzkopf, a professor of history and anthropology, along with other professors from her department, and the political science department.
The goal of the conference was to get “people to understand how important their property rights are, and how the government is expanding its power to limit individual rights going forward,” according to Dr. Walter Greason, Dean of the Honors School.
The event opened with a talk by Peter Reinhart, Director of the Kislak Real Estate Institute. Reinhart gave a brief overview of eminent domain.
According to Reinhart, the downside to eminent domain, also called expropriation, is that private property has been transferred to private developers, who look to build luxury homes and businesses that will increase the property value of the area. This increase in value often makes the area inaccessible to its original inhabitants.
Greason said, “The way we govern property in the United States is completely misunderstood. We protect property more than we protect life and liberty in this country.”
“And generally we don’t discuss that enough, we tend to teach you that your life is the most sacrosanct, that no one should infringe on your freedom, but so much more of what we do legally is about our property. So if you don’t acquire property, your rights to life and liberty are really suspect,” Greason continued.
Following Reinharts presentation, the conference moved into session one, which featured Dr. Zebulon Miletsky Assistant Professor of Africana Studies and History at Stony Brook University and Tomas Gonzalez, of the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Their discussion focused on the Mandela movement in Roxbury, a municipality in Boston, which occurred from 1983 to 1986.
Mandela and his followers wanted to separate Roxbury and allow it to be its own city, in order to take back control of the land. Efforts to separate the area failed, and eventually, property in the area was lost to eminent domain. To explicate the significance of owning property and highlight the impact of losing this land, Miletsky said, “We want land control, because land control is the key to self-determination.”
After a short break, the conference went into the lunch session, where Vincenzo Mele and Sonia Paone, professors at the University of Pisa in Italy, compared eminent domain in Italy to that of the United States.
Anthony Pratcher, a Ph.D. Candidate in American History at the University of Pennsylvania, led the second part of the lunch session. He discussed community control through the lens of the Western Power Corridor project that affected multiple countries in Africa.
The conference moved to the Pozycki Auditorium for session three. This session was hosted by Adam Schneider, Mayor of Long Branch; Peter Wegener, Senior Partner of Bathgate Wegener & Wolf, PC; David Fisher, Vice President of K. Hovnanian Homes; and Reinhart. The entire third session was dedicated to expropriation in NJ, specifically the areas surrounding Long Branch.
The conference ended with session four, which consisted of three separate presentations. The first was a discussion on the historical perspective of eminent domain by Joe Grabas, Director and Chief Instructor of Grabas Institute for Continuing Education. Then the focus switched to the role of government in declining communities prior to redevelopment efforts, presented by Dennis Mikolay, and Intergovernmental Technician at the NJ Motor Vehicle Commission. The day finished with a talk by Rasheedah Phillips, Managing Attorney at Community Legal Solutions, who focused on the future of community development in regards to expropriation.
Nick VanDaley, a graduate student of anthropology, said, “This topic needs to be talked about because of the way it affects the disenfranchised. When the State has the ability to seize your property for economic development and leaves you out of the process entirely, we must see this as an attack of individual rights.”
Taylor Cavanaugh, a graduate student of anthropology, commented, “Expropriation is often viewed as a positive, and the true effects it has on the immediate community are often ignored. That needs to change.”
IMAGE COMPLIED by Brett O’Grady