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View from the Wharf: Riley's & Eminent Domain?

It Shouldn’t Be About Making More Money 

Next week a special town meeting is scheduled to consider the Riley property. If I understand it correctly, though another town meeting put the issue to rest, one person who couldn’t attend that meeting has brought it up again.

Let me see if I got this right: if this passes, the town could extend an offer to purchase the property, and failing that, would take it by eminent domain. Um, is there anyone who doesn’t see something extraordinarily wrong with that proposal?

Let’s take a step back. Personally and politically, I stand about two steps to the left of Bernie Sanders. I am a socialist. I’m not crazy about private ownership of property. I am a strong advocate of “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.” I think that accumulated wealth is, quite simply, evil, and on a whole lot of levels.

However, we don’t live in a socialist state. We live in a republic that likes to fancifully call itself a democracy and is in fact run on, and by, capitalism. I don’t like it, but I live here. You live here. And capitalist culture and legislation confer rights of ownership. Once upon a very bad time, over people. Now, mostly, over things. Like land.

The property in question already belongs to someone. Yes, wouldn’t it be nice if it were available; but it’s not. At the moment, the owner doesn’t wish to sell it. If that changes, then the town could reasonably seek to make an offer on the property. That seems elementary.

What is more disturbing is the concept of the town taking the property by eminent domain. For a parking lot? It’s already a parking lot. And the money from said parking lot goes to the owner. That’s how capitalism works. You don’t like it, change the system; but don’t try to cheat it. 

Eminent domain is an important constitutional right granted to communities to ensure their functioning for all residents, not just landowners. So as a principle, believe me when I tell you that I am solidly behind it. Infrastructure is necessary and communities’ needs change from when they were first established. But it needs to be a last resort, not a first one. If this were the only possible site for a new public safety complex, then eminent domain should be considered. But it’s not. It’s a convenient place for said structure (and the extra parking area; I haven’t forgotten about that), perhaps even the most convenient, but it isn’t the only one. So any ethical justification for taking the land from the owner falls apart.

Legally? It’s okay. The Supreme Court in 2005 said so in Kelo v. City of New London, 125 S. Ct. 2655. The United States Constitution says so; Massachusetts state law says so. “Public use” is a good enough reason to condemn and seize, and there’s no argument that Provincetown wouldn’t make good use of this property.

Here’s the thing, though: is it what the town should do?

A brief digression: I don’t sleep well. I’m often awake at three o’clock in the morning, fretting about things I can do absolutely nothing to change, revisiting situations I’ve been in and decisions I’ve made that I wish had been different. I’ve never once been distressed remembering any time I took the high road. I’ve never tossed and turned thinking about when I did the right thing, the moral thing, the ethical thing.

Doesn’t that work for us as a community as well? Many of the people reading this, I expect, are property owners in Provincetown. Imagine for a moment that this was your property, and everyone in town was talking about taking it away from you. Seriously: think about it.

Not as nice a scenario, is it?

I still think we should have a socialist revolution. I still hate capitalism with every fiber of my being. But living under the constraints of an inherently unethical form of government doesn’t have to give us license to behave unethically.

Or maybe it does. I guess that we’ll find out next week.

 

 

 

 

 

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