Opinion

JEFF JACOBY

Eminent-domain abuse rears its menacing head in Plymouth County

The Federal Furnace Cranberry Bog in Carver.

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The Federal Furnace Cranberry Bog in Carver.

Nobody moves to Carver, Mass., for its urban flair. The town is rural and quiet, thickly wooded with pine and cedar — the sort of place people move to when they have a hankering to raise chickens, grow vegetables, and luxuriate amid an abundance of open space.

It’s also about as wet a place as you can find in Massachusetts. Half the town consists of wetland, much of it in the form of cranberry bogs. The cranberry industry has always been a Carver mainstay; in the 1940s, the town produced more of the tart little fruits than any other place on earth. Carver’s appeal is more diversified today — visitors flock to the town for the train rides at the Edaville amusement park and the Renaissance-themed King Richard’s Faire — but at heart, Carver is still cranberry country.

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If town officials get their way, however, a great swath of rural Carver will be designated an “urban renewal area,” and turned over to a private entrepreneur with plans to build a giant complex of warehouse and industrial-distribution facilities. The entrepreneur — a Boston-based company called Route 44 Development LLC — already owns a large piece of land in the area: a 127-acre parcel, known as the Whitworth Property, that has lain unused since a sand-and-gravel mining operation shut down in 2000. The parcel isn’t much to look at; in a report last month, the Carver Redevelopment Authority described it as being littered with “debris, stumps and other materials, building slabs . . . generally unkempt and unsightly.”

Like most towns, Carver wants to expand its tax base and promote new growth; not surprisingly, local officials couldn’t be happier that a private developer wants to turn the old Whitworth Property into a valuable commercial asset. Homeowners living next to the property would be happy too — if that were all the developer had in mind.

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But Route 44 Development’s ambitions extend far beyond the borders of the Whitworth Property. With the active support of town officials, it intends to construct a 1.1 million-square-foot distribution center and two warehouses totaling nearly 800,000 square feet, swallowing up the land of numerous neighbors in the process. And if those neighbors don’t want to leave? The developer is counting on the town to force them out, by seizing their property through eminent domain and turning it over to Route 44 Development.

Long before Carver residents had any hint of this, town officials and the developer were planning it in secret.

In a confidential letter to Carver’s board of selectmen dated Jan. 20, 2015, the developer — who describes himself as a specialist in “eminent-domain cases” — wrote that his company had bought the Whitworth Property in order to build a large commercial facility on it, but understood that it wouldn’t be possible to secure the needed state environmental approvals without acquiring the surrounding properties. He urged the town to make that happen through an “urban renewal” designation covering the whole area, and dangled the irresistible bait: “considerable real estate tax revenues.” Carver’s selectmen, meeting behind closed doors the same day, were keenly interested. “They need the Town to step in to help the development,” the notes of their executive session read, “since all surrounding property is privately owned.” (The letter and the notes were uncovered after a local homeowner filed an open records request.)

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Town officials energetically set about putting the proposal in motion. But it was more than a year before residents learned of the peril to their property. In February 2016, a Carver official told the local paper that Town Hall would “plan to begin reaching out” to homeowners in mid-March. In fact, it wasn’t until April — more than 14 months after Route 44 Development and the Carver selectmen were already making plans — that neighbors found out they could lose their homes.

Two owners have already thrown in the towel. Once their homes showed up on an “urban renewal” acquisition list, they decided to sell and spare themselves the misery of trying to fight a developer backed by Town Hall. But some neighbors don’t want to go anywhere. Karen and Bruce Tuscher have lived in their home on Montello Street for almost four decades. Karen’s father and grandfather owned the property before she did, and after Bruce got out of the Navy, he and Karen settled in to raise a family — which, in classic Carver fashion, included not just their daughter, but a whole menagerie: a pig, a Welsh pony, lambs, goats, and chickens.

The threat of losing their home to eminent domain would come as a shock to anyone, but in the Tuschers’ case it is compounded by the fact that Bruce has multiple myeloma, a rare form of blood cancer. In July, as the couple was coming under pressure to sell out to the developer, Bruce was in the hospital, undergoing bone marrow replacement and chemotherapy.

“We would love to live in the home where we have been for 37 years,” Karen told Carver’s redevelopment authority. “We are not opposed to a business at the 127-acre parcel. We have seen many businesses on that land. My husband and I worked for one of them several years ago.”

At best, eminent domain is an unfortunate necessity — a last resort when land is needed for a public purpose, such as building a new school or a highway. But when government takes private property in order to benefit a private developer, or when it threatens to do so, it abuses its power and betrays the citizens it is supposed to represent.

Eminent-domain abuse, sadly, isn’t new. In its execrable Kelo decision, the Supreme Court left it up to states to protect individuals from having their property condemned at the behest of an influential private developer. Numerous states promptly enacted robust new protections for private property rights.

But not Massachusetts. Here homeowners remain at the mercy of large developers, and find themselves blindsided by government officials so tempted by “considerable real estate tax revenue” that they’re willing to drive people from their homes to get it.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.
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