Wednesday, February 23, 2005

The Other Extreme of Government Vs Property Rights

Instapundit and Professor Bainbridge have been pointing out one extreme of government abuse of property rights. Their posts talk about the use of eminent domain in contravention of the Fifth Amendment: "Nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation." In these cases, governments are forcibly purchasing private property for questionable ends. For example, in the case of Kelo vs. City of New London, the city of New London has allowed a private non-profit organization to forcibly purchase the houses of Susette Kelo and neighbors for as-yet-unspecified private use.

But there's another extreme -- landmark status. When landmark status is invoked, a governmental body forces owners of property to continue to own and maintain such property in perpetuity, even if funds are not available or ownership is no longer desired. Stinks, don't it? And now Chicago politicians are thinking of forcing about 200 churches to accept it.

Owners of houses of worship currently are permitted to reject landmark designation, but a proposal co-sponsored by 10 aldermen would end their ability to opt out.

Experts say that at least 200 Chicago churches are of landmark quality, and the owners of any of them that were to win designation would lose the ability to tear down and be forced to maintain them in perpetuity.

"Our absolutely last choice is to demolish a building," said Jim Dwyer, a spokesman for the Catholic archdiocese. "But if we have no use for it, we are not going to spend money to keep a vacant building open at the expense of our ministries and our schools, even if somebody finds it aesthetically pleasing.

"I think [the new proposal] would be a concern to anyone who believes in religious freedom," Dwyer said.

You read it right. If this gets passed, churches could have landmark status forced upon them by the secular city government. And that means that the churches would not be able to tear down the church or make major changes without permission, and would be legally required to keep the property in good shape.

So what if the church is low on funds? Or, on the other hand, what if the church wants to build a new, larger sanctuary? They're stuck with the current property as a legally-mandated drain on resources and options.

Preservationists now are pushing to save St. Boniface, a shuttered Catholic church at Chestnut and Noble Streets, as Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. (27th) seeks to fashion a compromise in which a developer would purchase the building from the archdiocese, save the facade and construct condominiums on the site.

"I think we have to come up with a creative way of helping [religious organizations] out," Burnett said. "If they don't have the money to be able to fix the building, they can go to jail or be fined" if they failed to maintain a building with landmark status," he said.

"You are going to make someone do something they can't afford to do," Burnett said.

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