Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Eminent Domain in the Medical Center

I previously wrote about the use of eminent domain by the Texas Medical Center to seize land for an expansion. Now, the Texas legislature is considering a bill that will strip Houston's largest employer of most of its eminent domain powers. While this is certainly a good step, several local politicians are using HB 3709 to engage in political grandstanding.

Council member Anne Clutterbuck supports the measure because it will "protect" the nearby neighborhoods. Clutterbuck also used the "protection" argument in opposing the Ashby High Rise. Apparently, "protecting" neighborhoods is more important to Clutterbuck than protecting property rights.

Clutterbuck considers it wrong for the Medical Center to condemn homes, but it is not wrong for the city to erect arbitrary barriers to the construction of Ashby. Eminent domain is wrong because it initiates force and compels individuals to act contrary to their own judgment. The city's opposition to Ashby does exactly the same thing. Clutterbuck might attempt to justify her hypocrisy by arguing that in both instances she is working to "protect" neighborhoods, and therefore her position is consistent.

Such an argument is based on the premise that groups possess rights separate and distinct from the individuals comprising it. Such an argument holds that the group--the neighborhood--can violate the rights of other property owners.

Clutterbuck is hardly alone in taking such a stand. Annise Parker has also jumped into the fray. In a letter to Representative Dennis Bonnen, Chair of the Committee on Land and Resource Management, Parker wrote:

Allowing the TMC, or any other private venture, special authority to condemn property and override these deed restrictions threatens quality of life, neighborhood stability and individual property rights.

Parker, who also opposes the Ashby High Rise and supports preservation ordinances, obviously does not see such positions as a threat to "individual property rights". Apparently, it is acceptable for the city to use force against citizens, but unacceptable if a "private venture" does so. The truth is, the initiation of force is always immoral, and the number of individuals supporting its use does not change that fact.

The right to property is the right of use and disposal. It means that the owner can use his property as he chooses, so long as he respects the mutual right of others. Eminent domain, preservation ordinances, and the city's efforts to stop Ashby all prevent the respective property owners from acting in accordance with their judgment. Yet, neither Parker nor Clutterbuck sees this as a problem. Their mantra is "protect neighborhoods", and if they have to use a concept like "property rights" then so be it. But to them, "property rights" is a floating concept--they are unable to connect it to concrete situations.

Like most politicians, Parker and Clutterbuck present themselves as principled individuals. In truth, they are devoid of political principles. They deal with each situation on a "case by case" basis and engage in verbal gymnastics to justify their hypocrisy. They will assail the property rights of one individual while feigning support for the property rights of another.

A truly principled politician would not pander to noisy constituents. He would support and protect the rights of all individuals. A truly principled politician would be just like me.


Hugh Rice said...

I would like to correct one factual point in your posting: House Bill 3709 WILL NOT “strip Houston's largest employer of MOST of its eminent domain powers.” (emphasis added; excuse the caps--italics isn't available in this text format).

The bill repeals ONLY the power to condemn single family homes, defined in a way that reflects the antiquated but still-prevailing development patterns of Houston's surviving pre-WWII neighborhoods.

Here is the exact language from the current committee substitute of HB 3709: [Section(b)(2)] "NO CONDEMNATION OF RESIDENTIAL PROPERTY. The power of eminent domain and condemnation [by TMC Inc.] shall not apply to any Residential Neighborhood, nor may a corporation defined in Section 1 of this Act otherwise acquire Residential Neighborhood property . . ."

The effect of this prohibition is to remove only residential condemnation power, not eminent domain over business property. In fact, there remains an unlimited supply of non-residential property adjacent to the north, east, south, and southwest of the Medical Center. All of the condemnations by TMC Inc since 1959 have been of business and commercial properties, so it is clearly incorrect to say the bill "strips most of its eminent domain powers." The Texas Medical Center grew from a fifty acre core in the 1940's to a thousand acres today, condemning only a few acres of residential property in the process. Repealing that power will not cause the slightest ripple in the growth prospects of the TMC.

I will leave the more general debate over the propriety of eminent domain to your other readers. However, it is important to understand the limited scope of House Bill 3709.

I believe it is also worthwhile noting that this legislation has very broad, bipartisan support from all of the prewar neighborhoods both east and west of Main, probably equally divided between R's and D's. I fall into the Republican camp. I was a co-founder of Texans for Lawsuit Reform and have been its volunteer general council from its origins in 1994--so it has been interesting to join forces with so many Democrats who routinely oppose TLR's litigation reforms.

Brian Phillips said...

Whether HB 3709 removes 40% or 50% or 60% of the Medical Center's eminent domain powers is really only a detail. My essential points remain the same--eminent domain is a violation of property rights, and Parker and Clutterbuck are pandering to constituents.

Indeed, your comments demonstrate this latter point. If they were really interested in protecting property rights, they would call for revoking all eminent domain powers. I will have more to say about this on Friday.

Robert Reynolds said...

Perhaps an angle that the original post is missing is that these politicians think rights violations are acceptable so long as they are not *for profit*.

Note that House Bill 3709 speaks of prohibiting TMC Inc. and other corporations defined in the bill. it does not mention restricting the government from taking land.

So the message here is that government trampling the rights of property owners is ok because it is preventing ugly profit from happening. If the government needs to steal land, that is ok too because the government serves "everyone" and is not out to profit.

I smell altruism.

Brian Phillips said...

Your point about for profit corporations is one I had not considered. You may be right.

I agree that altruism underlies all of this. The only issue the politicians seem undecided about is who will sacrifice, and who will collect those sacrifices.