Use of Eminent Domain by DTMUA is Wrong – OP-ED

Editor’s Note: The following is the opinion of The Delaware Township Post Editorial Board.

The Delaware Township Municipal Utilities Authority (DTMUA) has voted to proceed with the use of eminent domain to obtain a parcel of private property owned by the Hannan family, below Sergeantsville. This parcel would be used to provide a turnaround to ease access by large trucks to the sewer plant. This decision is made in haste, is poorly conceived, and is likely unnecessary. More troubling, however, is the DTMUA’s bureaucratic, unsympathetic treatment of a township resident and its disturbing willingness to pursue condemnation of private property for the sake of convenience.

The U.S. Constitution permits the taking of private property, but only for a “public use” and then only with “just compensation”.  There can be compelling arguments for the use of eminent domain – for example, building a public roadway, a school, or a hospital. In a recent controversy, the Supreme Court even allowed its use by New London, Connecticut to further a commercial project seen as benefiting the public. In all cases, the government must demonstrate that eminent domain is justifiable and will serve a public use, and that no other suitable alternative exists. The DTMUA claims that the property is needed to provide a turnaround and that the compelling argument in this case lies in improved safety and environmental protections. These may be valid reasons for a turnaround in general, but do they constitute a justification for exercising eminent domain? The DTMUA is short on evidence of this. It appears that convenience is the primary motive; safety and environmental concerns are being held up to mask government heavy-handedness.

Private property rights are fundamental elements of U.S. Law, protected by the the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution; they deserve the utmost of respect.  Exhibiting an astonishing lack of respect toward these rights, the DTMUA has been an unwelcome squatter on the Hannan property since 1997. In that year, Mr. Hannan granted the DTMUA’s request to access the property for a temporary, limited use. Since that time the DTMUA has treated the property as its own, with its use going from temporary parking and storage to a graveled turnaround. And they have gone so far as to remove trees from the property! Although the DTMUA has been using the property against the Hannans’ will for over eight years, it feels their unwillingness to sell the property creates an unreasonable situation.

What is truly unreasonable is the DTMUA’s proposed solution to its problem and the treatment of the Hannans. The DTMUA admits it has sought no other alternatives, that this is “the simplest and easiest solution.”  Ease and simplicity, however, are unacceptable reasons for a government authority to take away private property. The bar should be set much, much higher than that. Before it sets the steamroller in motion over the Hannans and their property, the DTMUA should do the difficult and sometimes complicated work of looking for alternatives.

The DTMUA should consider these alternatives:

  • Start by making it easier to back down the driveway.  Trim the branches, clear the trees, widen, even pave the lane.  Try it for a year.
  • Pursue other access options.  Are other adjacent landowners willing to sell? Can stone walls or other barriers, which the DTMUA claims make one other property unacceptable, be cleared?
  • Pursue an amicable solution with the Hannans. Perhaps a lease?

In the unlikely event that the search for alternatives is exhausted without success, the DTMUA should demonstrate that its exercise of eminent domain is justifiable. It should be able to illustrate how the public would benefit from this ease of access. Would it reduce operating costs, thereby reducing the burden on the taxpayer? Would it increase the capacity of the plant, helping the Township meet its affordable housing requirements? Would it improve safety or reduce the environmental impact of the plant, improving and protecting our quality of life?

If the DTMUA cannot find an alternative and it cannot justify the value to the public of excercising eminent domain, then perhaps it should live with an inconvenient access road.

When asked about the past use of eminent domain in Delaware Township, longtime Township Clerk, Judy Allen said that she could not recall the township ever having condemned private land.  While there certainly may be cases where the legal precedent should be invoked, this should not be Delaware’s first parcel.  While the DTMUA may have the authority to condemn land, even authority can be abused. Along with its authority, the DTMUA has responsibilities to the community – individually and collectively. The Hannans deserve more respect; we all deserve more respect.  No one wants to fault the DTMUA for looking for simple, easy solutions, except when they come at the expense of basic rights.