In the computer game SimCity, players construct their own utopias of bustling urban centers or quaint little towns. They can build streets, skyscrapers and stadiums, and decide where to place parks, police stations and power plants. The game invites players to "Play God, play mayor!"
SimCity is harmless entertainment. What's alarming is that city authorities across Arizona are playing a similar game with the lives and property of real people. From Tucson to Tempe, city planners are flouting federal and state constitutional protections of private property, razing homes and businesses and building private developments according to their personal visions.
Just ask Kenneth and Mary Ann Pillow. They have lived in their Tempe home since 1965. Right down to the white picket fence, their home is a quiet testament to the American Dream. And the fate they now face at the hands of government is a standing reminder that government's appetite "grows with eating," as Barry Goldwater once observed.
Tempe officials want to remake the Pillows' property, and barring court intervention, their home will be demolished.
Like thousands of other private citizens in Arizona, the Pillows live in the path of a municipal redevelopment plan. Under these plans, cities condemn private property, sell it to developers at a discount, and then get a cut of the developers' profits, typically through new tax revenue.
Arizona cities once had to declare an area "slum and blighted" before they could condemn properties for private development. However, statutes adopted by the Legislature in 1997 made condemning property all too easy. Properties could be condemned if an area had an "inadequate street layout," if the area "arrest(ed) the sound growth of a municipality," or even if there was too little "diversity of ownership."
With such arbitrary and subjective standards in place, municipalities have gone on a takings rampage. More than 3,200 condemnations have been filed in just the past five years, a trend documented in the Institute for Justice's just-released report, "Public Power, Private Gain."
Legislation adopted this spring should afford homeowners at least a small margin of protection. Positive provisions require municipalities to make a good-faith effort to negotiate the purchase of the property before initiating a condemnation, and require a two-thirds vote by the governing body before designating an area for redevelopment.
However, the legislation does not go far enough. The Legislature should revoke the 1997 statutes in their entirety. The U.S. and Arizona Constitutions allow municipalities to condemn property for truly public purposes. Any taking of property for private purposes simply cannot be squared with a system of government that respects private property ownership.
Not surprisingly, the municipalities and their armies of lobbyists contest any moves that put their SimCity visions out of easy reach. In a legislative update to the Arizona Planning association, Debra Stark, community development director for Peoria, expressed the frustration in the planning community, writing, "In essence, we no longer have redevelopment in Arizona. We are now back to slum and blight."
But city planners concerned with the decline of neighborhoods can promote regeneration and growth without resorting to taking private property. An easy and appropriate step for city authorities is to assess the local tax rates and regulatory climate to ensure the area is attractive to entrepreneurs. The importance of low overall tax rates to spur growth cannot be overestimated.