Eminent Domained

Monday, February 13th, 2006

Last week, a D.C. Court of Appeals judge dismissed an eminent domain case, essentially sealing the deal for the Washington Nationals to seize a man’s land for naked corporate welfare a stadium to host the grand, all-American game of baseball.

The man whose land was seized, Robert Siegel, is an adult entertainment mogul. Eminent domain cases don’t get much less sympathetic than this: Stealing land from a porn baron so that D.C. children can don their oversized ball caps, their foul-ball-catchin’ gloves, and spend an afternoon munching Cracker Jacks, getting mustard on their cute little faces, and root, root, rooting for the home team. Who’d be crass enough to stick up for the porn king?

Well I, for one. And you should, too. Particular given the judge’s ruling in the case:

“We conclude that as a matter of law, the sole judges of whether or not the CFO’s estimate was made in bad faith are the D.C. Council and the mayor,” Washington wrote for the panel.

The ruling seems to ignore judicial review, and put all eminent domain matters, from the utility and merit of the project to the valuation of the land to be seized, in the hands of politicians. In this case, it lets Mayor Anthony Williams, who’s been hellbent on getting a baseball team to D.C., no matter the consequences, run roughshod over Mr. Siegel’s due process and property rights.

The city council instructed Maryor Williams’ financial officer to come up with a total price for the stadium, including constructions costs and the costs of purchasing the necessary land from its current owners. But the council also put a $165 million cap on acquisition and construction costs. Coincidentally, the CFO came up with a price of $161 million, calling into question whether Mr. Siegel’s land was assessed for its actual worth, or for a price that would fit within the city council’s budget constraints. The latter would of course be illegal.

The judge’s ruling essentially says that the courts won’t bother themselves to figure out what motivated the valuation, and will accept the CFO’s estimates on its face, with no scrutiny. Given the shameful way the city has behaved with respect to just about every other aspect of this deal — including using the city’s official, taxpayer-funded website to push its corporate welfare stadium plan –there’s good reason to think Mr. Siegel got screwed.

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