Bulldozed: "Kelo," Eminent Domain, and the American Lust for Land
By Carla T. Main
Encounter, $27.95, 304 pp.
If you're in the mood for a legal thriller about power-hungry small Southern town politicians, greedy developers, a hardscrabble entrepreneur forced to take on the system to protect his livelihood, and an intrepid lawyer who has to learn on the job how to play the power game, head to your local bookstore.
But walk by the stacks of John Grisham's latest liberal fantasy on the front table about shadowy right-wing groups influencing elections with off-shore slush funds (yeah, that's where the corruption of judicial politics lies, not lefties like class-action tort king Dickie Scruggs or Geoffrey Fieger.
Instead, head to the current events section. That's where you'll find Bulldozed, a gripping tale of Texas land grabbersworthy of Louis L'Amour -- except the hired guns carried briefcases, not Peacemakers.
"Build it and they will come." That's not just the motto of quirky baseball fan farmers with daddy issues, it's also the mantra of countless failing city governments with image problems.
Commonly known as the "Ugly Duckling Syndrome," it usually strikes small, out-of-the-way industrial towns that suddenly get a vision on how to make their drab burg into a trendy destination for people with large disposable incomes.
After all, factories — and in this case, shrimp-processing plants— are ugly. They pollute and they smell bad — and the people they employ don't throw parties for city council members. It's much better to find a way to get the beautiful people to stay a while, and leave their money behind. It's way cooler to be head honchos in South Beach than functionaries in Industrial City.
That's what the city officials of Freeport, Texas, decided. The masterminds figured a lackluster little town dominated by a Dow Chemical plant on the Brazos River -- and a full half-hour boring voyage from the Gulf Coast -- could become a premier destination for yachtsmen if Pappy Gore would just get his family business out of their way.
So, like countless other homeowners and small business people, the Gores found out their property rights were protected only until it looked like a different use of the land would produce more municipal tax revenue.
Never mind that the family business, Western Shrimp, was one of the county's biggest taxpayers or that the Gore family were patrons of every local charity. They even had raised money for major infrastructure projects in Freeport. But that was mere reality. The City Council had a dream.
Freeport officials' plan to turn the city around involved giving a $6-million dollar loan to Dallas developer H. Walker Royall, a favorite native son, to develop a marina. (Although Royall eventually became the target of the Gore family's ire, it's only fair to point out that the city initially approached him with the sweetheart deal.)
The proponents of the scheme presented it as a no-risk proposition: Royall would develop the marina, and if he defaulted on the loan, "the city would get the land." What no one seemed to have figured out was that the only reason for Royall to default on the loan would be if the marina failed. So, the city would have cost itself a major taxpayer and conscientious corporate citizen in exchange for an empty marina.
But, as most of us have seen in various government planning fantasies in our own states, this is hardly unusual. Author Carla T. Main, herself an attorney with expertise on the issue and a former editor at the National Law Journal, takes a lively look at the history of takings in the United States -- from Madison's concerns being written into the U.S. Constitution to the Poletown case where General Motors razed one of Detroit's few self-sustaining neighborhoods to build a factory.
But at least Poletown was part of a concrete plan, though it never reached the levels GM promised, and now Detroit has neither a factory or a neighborhood generating tax base on the site. Many of the current "redevelopment" plans proposed by consultants, lobbyists and "urban planners" are mere fantasy.
Somewhere along the way, eminent domain ceased being merely about the taking of land for public use, such as roads and railroads, and it became exactly what Madison and the Founders said it should never be — a transfer of property from one private owner to another who is more favored. In fact, most modern takings are not about public use, but about public benefit, i.e., who will generate the most in future tax revenues according to the politicians' projections.
Interspersed with a broader look at the abuse of the takings process, Main tells the story of the Gores and their brave stand against the thuggery of Freeport city officials in their determination to become trendy and cool -- from the suppression of political speech and the abuse of police power, to the publishing of propaganda on the taxpayer dime.
"Bulldozed" is a cautionary tale — and a downright entertaining one. While it's apt to get your blood boiling and ends with more a whimper than a bang, Carla Main's direct and witty writing makes "Bulldozed" a page-turner of the first order. It's also a darn good civics lesson.