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Published: Sunday, 11/28/2004

Michigan ruling limits concept of 'public use'


DETROIT - Poletown, a working-class neighborhood that extends across the border here into neighboring Hamtramck, was the focus of a 1981 economic development plan to take private property for public use.

It's for the public good, officials insisted at the time plans were announced to make room for a new General Motors auto assembly plant.

The plan uprooted 4,200 people from 1,300 homes. Along with the homes, the cities bought 140 businesses, six churches, and one hospital. All were leveled.

Then-Detroit Mayor Coleman Young promised 6,000 jobs. The $750 million assembly plant ended up bringing less than half.

Today, 23 years later, Hamtramck still exists, as does the Polish Village Cafe on Yemans Street where Carolyn Wietrzykowski works. But the 29-year-old barely remembers the controversy that was ignited throughout the neighborhood and spread throughout the Detroit area.

"I was 6 or 7," she said, remembering the priests who fought for their churches and residents who now have scattered over the years. "They wrote a book about it."

Whether Detroit and the area are better off remains a subject of occasional debate in the community. A recent Michigan Supreme Court decision essentially had the effect of reversing the ruling that allowed the Poletown project to move forward - but it's impossible to reverse demolished homes.

The ruling said that Michigan governmental entities should not use eminent domain - law giving government the power to acquire property - purely for achieving a "public purpose." The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says the government's eminent domain authority must be for a "public use," which has generally been taken to mean acquiring public property to make way for such uses as a highway or a public school.

Over the years, however, courts and politicians have stretched the meaning to include addressing urban blight and creating jobs.

The recent decision reversed officials in Wayne County, Mich., who used eminent domain power to take land near Detroit Metro Airport for Pinnacle Park, an industrial and technology park designed to attract business. The Poletown case from 1981 also was reversed in the 7-0 ruling handed down in August.

Brenda Braceful, deputy corporation attorney for the City of Detroit, said she does not believe Pinnacle Park and the Poletown cases are similar. The city had filed a brief in support of Wayne County in the Pinnacle Park case, she said.

"Our official reaction [to the state Supreme Court ruling] is there were some differences. We felt that our previous position [on addressing urban blight] remained," she said.

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to take up a similar case from New London, Conn. At issue is whether economic development - specifically, creating jobs - qualifies as a public use. The nation's top court could establish permanent rules on the government's use of eminent domain in the future.

Contact Christopher D. Kirkpatrick at: ckirkpatrick@theblade.com

or 419-724-6077.

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