A year ago, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling that rattled homeowners across the country. In a 5-4 decision, the high court concluded then that a town in Connecticut had the right to bulldoze a two-bedroom Victorian home to make way for the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer.
Critics warned that the ruling meant the government’s ability to seize property — eminent domain — was a threat to basic American rights.
This fall, 10 states, including Arizona, have ballot measures to address the government’s right to grab private property for public use.
Arizona’s version is Proposition 207 — a heavily funded, highly organized campaign that’s bankrolled largely by libertarian groups and New York City real estate investor Howie Rich.
The proposition, if successful, would limit the power of eminent domain in jurisdictions across Arizona, but it could also block basic government land-use decisions.
A key provision of Prop. 207 is that property owners would receive full compensation for government zoning decisions that reduce the value of a piece of land.
For example, if Phoenix rezoned an area so it became a historical district to prevent a landowner from building condos on it, the landowner could file a claim for millions of dollars.
Tom Jenney, field coordinator for Arizona HOPE — HomeOwners Protection Effort — said the proposition would be a check and balance on ballooning government control.
Jenney said the measure would require governments to ask themselves: How much of a public benefit do we get from this? “They might not be able to take the value of the land and run,” he said.
Opponents — including a large collection of neighborhood, conservation and planning groups — say that the proposition is being unfairly sold as a way to prevent government abuse in eminent domain cases.
They argue that the state has a good track record of limiting eminent domain to situations where there’s a need to build streets, utilities and other public improvements. They also warn that if local governments were forced to defend even routine zoning changes, it would cause endless litigation, unorganized housing developments and government paralysis.
A public works project such as Metro light rail, for instance, might be impossible if landowners along the line challenged the zoning decisions necessary to turn scattered sites into retail businesses, restaurants and housing.
Alan Stephenson, vice president of legislative affairs for the Arizona Planning Association, said Oregon’s Measure 37, similar to Prop. 207, has created chaos.
“There’s $5 billion in claims and they haven’t decided what to do with them all yet,’’ Stephenson said. “It all kind of ground to a halt as they try to figure it all out.”
As of early September, supporters of the proposition had raised nearly $1 million, with more than $890,000 donated by Arizona HOPE’s ally and libertarian group, Americans for Limited Government.
Opponents of the provision, meanwhile, had raised $11,300.
Paul Barnes leads the Neighborhood Coalition of Greater Phoenix, which is against the ballot measure. He said that opponents delayed their fundraising efforts because of a court challenge that threatened to pull the proposition from the Nov. 7 ballot.
The court challenge failed. Even so, Barnes remains optimistic that the ballot measure can be defeated.
“The polling data indicates that if we have a reasonable campaign, we’ll win this thing,” he said.