Wednesday, August 24, 2005

The Main Issue on the Main Line

SEPTA's R-5 rumbles through West Philadelphia at a healthy clip, carrying its affluent passengers to and fro from Center City to the famed "Main Line" neighborhoods bordering her tracks. Developed in the 1910's and 1920's, the red brick and granite homes, interspersed with golf clubs, horse farms and the lush campuses of exclusive colleges, exude wealth. Ardmore, a small town center that grew up around a train station on the Main Line, features tidy streets of cute boutiques and restaurants. With a median income of $61k, and a median age of 38 yrs, Ardmore is significantly wealthier and younger than most... a BoBo paradise.

So how does Lower Merion Township get off declaring a large swath of the business district 'Blighted,' a legal precondition for using eminent domain. The Economist points out just how ridiculous Kelo V. New London can be in light of Lower Merion's heavy handed decision to simply send out eviction notices in absence of any form of public process, or even warning. In essence... "its a bitch folks, but our vision for your property is better than your vision."

That an arrogant government is convinced it can design a higher and better use for an already successful business district is an old and painful tale: reference 1960's East Liberty. What should concern people is the open-ended power of that arrogant government to declare what it wants "Blighted," be it a tidy business district or a farmfield along Route 28. The Blighted designation opens a war-chest of financing tools, legal exemptions and expanded government powers that are unduly brought to bear in the name of 'Progress.' Sadly enough, 'Progress' is as poorly defined as 'Blighted.' Lower Merion sets its sights on a tidy historic business district based on a little chipped paint and a low-brow Chinese buffet. Allegheny County provides tax increment financing for a new mall on a 'blighted' farmfield, called so because of one bad crop of alfalfa in 1984.

If one follows the money, the primary beneficiary of 'Progress' isnt Joe Taxpayer... its Mr. Real Estate Developer. As Mr. Developer reaps in millions of subsidy granted by a developer friendly government through a blighted designation, Joe Taxpayer foots the bill. Eminent Domain, as Sandra Day O'Connor wrote, gives powerful citizens undue power over their lessers. If she had speculated beyond the loss of property rights, the true perversity would surface: Joe Taxpayer will not only lose his property to Eminent Domain, but he'll likely pay for its subsequent replacement.

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