Op-Ed

Despite Supreme Court ruling, Florida protects property owners from eminent domain

Susette Kelo standing in front of home in New London, Connecticut
Susette Kelo standing in front of home in New London, Connecticut Institute for Justice

Your home is your castle, right? Well, that depends on which state you call home.

In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the infamous Kelo case that the city of New London, Connecticut, could use its power of eminent domain to take away the homes of blue-collar workers who enjoyed a spectacular waterfront view.

What made the ruling so outrageous was that the government wasn’t taking these people’s homes for a public use — for a project the public would own and use, like a courthouse, as required by the U.S. Constitution — but for someone else’s private gain.

In this case, the entire neighborhood would be replaced with a hotel and high-end condos to complement the nearby headquarters of pharmaceutical giant Pfizer. If a developer merely promised to pay more in taxes than the current land owner, the Court ruled, the land could be taken by the government from one private owner and transferred to another private owner.

The home at the center of this fight was the little pink house of Susette Kelo. Kelo, a nurse, had escaped a bad marriage and was starting over in a new town. She found a rundown cottage with a gorgeous water view and lovingly restored it with her own hands. No sooner was she nestled in the first home she could call her own than she discovered that powerful politicians wanted to bulldoze her entire neighborhood to make way for the private development project.

The ruling against Kelo made for strange political bedfellows. The U.S. Supreme Court’s liberal justices made up the majority who ruled against Kelo and in favor of the government, and when the Kelo ruling was handed down, developer Donald Trump said, “I happen to agree with it 100 percent.” After becoming President, he said, “I think eminent domain is wonderful.”

But that Supreme Court ruling wasn’t the last word for Floridians. And that is good news for anyone who owns a home in the Sunshine State.

Almost immediately after Kelo, the Florida Legislature and then-Governor Jeb Bush went to work to better protect Florida property owners by passing the strongest protections against eminent domain abuse anywhere in the nation.

The most important change was that the new law barred the government from selling land taken through eminent domain to a private party for 10 years, thus effectively eliminating condemnations for private development.

And the state enshrined its reforms with a state constitutional amendment, which, while allowing eminent domain for genuine public work projects, ensures eminent domain for solely private gain is a thing of the past.

All the while this legislative battle was transpiring, there was another little pink house at the center of a major eminent domain fight raging in Riviera Beach, Florida.

Princess Wells, like Kelo, owned a well-maintained little pink house near the water. The city government wanted to bulldoze her entire neighborhood to make way for a yacht club and other private development. Like Susette, Princess fought hard to defend what was rightfully hers. The mayor and the city council sought to do an end run around the state’s legislative reforms, filing their takings of the homes literally one day before the state law went into effect, but a court later ruled against Riviera Beach and in favor of Princess. Although no longer painted pink, Princess continues to enjoy her home in peace to this day.

One might think that Princess Wells’ story has more of a Hollywood ending than Kelo’s. But such is not the case. Literally.

Kelo’s story is now a major Hollywood movie called, appropriately enough, Little Pink House, starring Academy Award nominee Catherine Keener as Kelo.

The Institute for Justice, which represented both Kelo and Wells, will host a special screening of Little Pink House on Wednesday, May 23 at the AMC Sunset Place 24 in Miami.

Princess Wells, herself, will be on hand to discuss what it was like to go through the same struggle Kelo faced.

Movies like Little Pink House are important reminders that private developers who would turn homeowners into prey in the hunt for developable land are powerless but for the use of government force. Floridians should celebrate that their political representatives demonstrated actual leadership in defending homeowners from this scourge.

This is a lesson other states should follow. After all, Princess Wells shouldn’t be the only one who can call herself the queen of her castle.

John E. Kramer is vice president for communications at the Institute for Justice.

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