Shared from the 3/12/2020 The Denver Post eEdition
EMINENT DOMAIN By Christopher Flavelle © The New York Times Co.
WASHINGTON» The federal government is giving local officials nationwide a painful choice: Agree to use eminent domain to force people out of flood-prone homes, or forfeit a shot at federal money they need to combat climate change.
That choice, part of an effort by the Army Corps of Engineers to protect people from disasters, is facing officials from the Florida Keys to the New Jersey coast, including Miami, Charleston, S.C., and Selma, Ala. Local governments seeking federal money to help people leave flood zones must first commit to push out people who refuse to move.
In one city in the heartland, the letters have already started going out. Last year, Giovanni Rodriguez, whose white midcentury house backs onto a creek in the southern suburbs of Nashville, Tenn., received a letter saying his home “is eligible for participation in a floodplain home buyout program.” The surprise came a few lines lower: If necessary, the city “would acquire properties through the use of eminent domain.”
Rodriguez, a 39-year-old freelance musician and composer, said he had no interest in selling — at least not for what the city is offering, which he said wasn’t much more than the $188,500 he paid for the home in 2013. “I would lose this house that I love,” he said.
Eminent domain — the government’s authority to take private property, with compensation, for public use — has long been viewed as too blunt a tool for getting people out of disaster-prone areas. It has a controversial history: Local governments have used it to tear down African-American neighborhoods, as well as to build freeways and other projects over residents’ objections. Even when the purpose of eminent domain is seen as legitimate, elected officials are generally loath to evict people.
Still, in a sign of how serious the threat of climate change has become, some local governments have told the Corps they will do so if necessary, according to documents obtained through public records requests and interviews with officials. Other cities have yet to decide, saying they feel torn between two bad options.
The willingness to use eminent domain shows how quickly the discussion around climate has shifted.
Still, threatening to push people out of their houses is an extreme step, experts said. “It’s going to create a really big political backlash,” said A.R. Siders, a professor at the University of Delaware who studies buyouts. Still, she praised the Corps for “recognizing that the degree of action we’re taking needs to match the degree of the crisis.”
The Corps’ mission includes protecting Americans from flooding and coastal storms.
As that risk grows because of climate change, the Corps has shifted toward paying local governments to buy and demolish homes at risk of flooding. The logic is that the only surefire way to guarantee the homes won’t flood again is if they no longer exist.
Many officials have balked, at least for now. Miami-Dade has yet to agree to evict residents, and New Jersey has refused. In the Florida Keys, Roman Gastesi, the county administrator, said he doubted the county commission would approve it.
“Eminent domain is not something that’s going to be palatable,” Gastesi said.