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Hercules battles Wal-Mart

Lisa Napoli May 23, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: There’s a city up in Northern California you might never have heard of. Hercules. Population 24,000. Just northeast of San Francisco. The city council’s holding a hearing tonight. Trying to figure out what to do with some land in town. It’s good-sized. About 17 acres. And whatever they decide is sure to attract a lot of attention. Marketplace’s Lisa Napoli explains.

LISA NAPOLI: Twice now, Hercules has rejected plans by Wal-Mart to develop some land near the waterfront. Tonight, the city just might decide to make their unwelcome a bit more clear and seize the land using eminent domain.

ROGER PILON: Indeed, the town is aptly named, isn’t it?

That’s Roger Pilon of the Cato Institute.

He says it was just a matter of time that this use of eminent domain would happen, after that Supreme Court ruling last year. That gave governments the right to seize property, if it was for the financial benefit of the community — not just for public works:

PILON: The reason the framers put the words “public use” in the takings clause of the Fifth Amendment was to restrain its exercise.

Now, the people who run the town of Hercules are not opposed to turning the land into shopping. They just want something more upscale. Classy. And that’s what really bugs Sam Staley of the Reason Foundation:

SAM STALEY: Essentially, they are saying to private property owners that the city has a vision for their property, and if the property owner doesn’t want to use it in that way they’re gonna take it from them. I think, frankly, the city thinks it can get away with it because it’s Wal-Mart, and they don’t think Wal-Mart will have the popular support to reverse it.

Wal-Mart’s on the record as saying Hercules is playing politics. Although politics goes both ways.

Wal-Mart recently threatened residents of a Florida county with the use of eminent domain — even though the county said it didn’t plan to invoke it.

I’m Lisa Napoli for Marketplace.

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