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Published: Sunday, 7/23/2006

Domain poisoning?

All eminent domain cases are not equal, or so it would seem from a review of the controversy boiling over the proposed construction of a railroad terminal just over the Michigan line in rural Erie Township.

Eminent domain - government appropriation of private property for purposes deemed to serve the public interest - is an age-old concept that has emerged as an unpopular process, particularly since the United States Supreme Court reiterated its constitutionality in a 2005 case out of New London, Conn.

But the Erie Township dispute is an iron horse of a different color, and even more contentious, because it involves a railroad company - rather than a government body - seeking to exercise eminent domain for its own economic gain.

Before this case arose, it's safe to say, few Americans were fully aware that railroads have held such power since the 19th century, when the rail business was the driving force behind the nation's economic growth. That's no longer so, but the law remains.

The key question seems to be whether U.S. Rail, which seeks to build the rail-to-road freight terminal, qualifies as an appropriate railroad entity under federal law. If it does, there may not be anything opponents can do to stop the project, which is vehemently opposed by most residents and their township government.

This is a question we believe should be answered in court, the Supreme Court if necessary, before the project proceeds.

U.S. Rail, headquartered in Sylvania on the Ohio side of the state line, is a so-called short-line operator. The proposed 400-acre terminal between Erie and Luna Pier roads would be the transfer point where goods shipped directly from the West Coast via Canadian National Railway tracks would be loaded aboard trucks.

Seventeen parcels of land, three to five of them with homes, reportedly would be taken for the project, touted to generate some 700 jobs paying $12 to $28 an hour.

Angry residents say they don't care about jobs and progress, even if they would be duly compensated, as the Constitution requires. They're more concerned that the rail terminal would destroy the quiet rural character of their township, with roads blocked by trains and clogged with continuous traffic from heavy trucks servicing the facility. They foresee a situation not unlike that of the congestion in East Toledo, but without the overpasses.

This is perhaps the opposition's strongest argument: How can such a project be considered to be "in the public interest" if a broad majority of the public who live there, not to mention the local government, doesn't want it?

In that respect, the Erie Township dispute is far different from that of the eminent domain exercised to take property for construction of the Jeep North plant in Toledo in 1998, which we supported.

In that case, only a small number of property owners objected, and the project was recognized by virtually all local officials and the vast majority of residents as being necessary for the continued economic well-being of the Toledo community.

The same cannot be said of Erie Township, a largely agricultural area which will not dry up and blow away if the rail terminal is not located there. Such an enterprise may make all the economic sense in the world, but it should not necessarily be forced upon a rural populace that doesn't want it. That's democracy.



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