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Friday, June 14, 2024
Halt use of eminent domain


Halt use of eminent domain

As many people know, the fate of Brothers Bar & Grill on University Avenue is currently very uncertain. The UW Board of Regents wants to condemn the bar and use the land it is currently sitting on for a new music building. There had been prior negotiations regarding the school purchasing the land but those fell through. Now the owners of the bar, Marc and Eric Fortney, are suing the Board of Regents. Last week, a large sign appeared on the wall of the bar opposing the new music school and vaguely asking that people ""mobilize"" to save the bar. But the city of Madison forced them to take the sign down, claiming it was larger than regulations allow.

The sign, as well as anything else Brothers does, has absolutely nothing to do with music students and faculty. It has everything to do with the fact that the new music building will ultimately displace the bar from its current location without the approval of its owners. Humanities is not a nice building and the music department does merit a better one. But the issue here is the method the Board of Regents has chosen to use in putting up a new music building.

A trial will be held in April to decide the matter. The Fortneys' attorney, Mike Wittenwyler, said that since the University has not completed its plans for the new building, it should not be able to use eminent domain until it does so. The situation has inspired State Rep. Amy Sue Vruwink, D-Milladore, to introduce Assembly Bill 597, which would require the University of Wisconsin system to get approval from 75 percent of the Joint Committee on Finance before using eminent domain to condemn a property. A bipartisan handful of her colleagues have signed onto it too. As the only entity whose actions would be addressed, the university has been critical of the bill. But regardless of what transpires with the legislation, it is not retroactive so it will not save Brothers.

No matter what happens, this is just one more example of the problem of eminent domain. Eminent domain goes against the very ideals this country was built on. It allows a government to condemn private property and take it for public purposes against the owner's will. The owner has no say in the matter, even when it comes to determining how much compensation he or she will receive for the property. Eminent domain allows governments to circumvent property rights. This is despicable and nothing like this should ever be allowed to happen in America.

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Some people say that Brothers is ""just another bar"" and that it will not be missed. Those people are missing the point. To help them see it, let's look at this another way: If the government decides that it wants to bulldoze a person's house and put a road there instead, that house is not ""just another house."" It is someone's home. Whether it is a nice house or not is irrelevant. These people have most likely spent time and money making that building into what is now their home and it is unconscionable that it could be taken from them in any context that does not involve them receiving an amount of compensation they feel is appropriate.

Some people will not leave their homes for any price. Maybe it is a bad time in their life to move or they are just too attached. The reason does not matter. It is their property and, in America, that means something. The only difference between eminent domain in a residential context and eminent domain in a business context is that one of them directly affects one's livelihood.

During the Revolutionary War, the colonists had problems with British soldiers commandeering their homes, food and other supplies. This is one of the reasons property rights in this country were valued so highly by the founding fathers. Some people argue that certain constitutional amendments leave eminent domain on the table. But there is no way the founding fathers would ever have stood for something like what is happening to Brothers. So if they did leave an opening for a policy as destructive to the American dream as eminent domain, then we need to close it for them, perhaps in the form of another amendment.

But constitutional amendments are not the only option here. As citizens, we can let our representatives know that we support legislation like AB 597, except instead of singling out one entity, we need to advocate they cover all of them. We can make as much noise as possible when we see things like this happening so they do not go unnoticed. And finally, we can refuse to support plans for any government building requiring the use of eminent domain, as opposed to negotiating with a willing seller, as any private citizen would have to. Today this is happening to Brothers. Tomorrow it might be you fighting for your home or business.

Ben Turpin is a junior majoring in history and political science. Please send responses to 

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