The city of Windsor, Ontario, is infamous for expropriating private property for the benefit of private companies, be they housing developers, the operators of a casino, or car manufacturers. The city has now outdone itself, taking two homes for an admittedly unknown private use at some unspecified time in the future. In addition to being unnecessary, the expropriation is unfair and economically unsound.
In February, Windsor council voted to expropriate two century-old homes near its airport, in order to consolidate the four acres on which they sit with nearby land slated for development.
It is not yet known what development might occur, or when it might occur. According to Windsor’s chief financial officer, Onorio Colucci, the expropriated properties “are not currently needed.” City planner Thom Hunt likewise maintains “there are no immediate plans for development.” (Although Mr. Hunt’s mention of “a number of applications to the Planning Department that are not a matter of public record” suggests that the city may have secret plans up its sleeve.)
At the public inquiry into whether the proposed expropriation was fair, sound, and reasonably necessary, Mr. Hunt explained that the city plans to surround the airport with manufacturing, industrial, and commercial businesses. The two homes, on land that is currently zoned agricultural, are inconsistent with those plans, and could limit potential growth by restricting the size of the parcels the city could offer potential businesses.
At the inquiry, the lawyer for one of the home owners challenged the city’s need for the land, pointing out that it is at the very perimeter of the land targeted for development and that development could occur without taking this peripheral land.
When it came time to vote on the matter, two city council members agreed. Councillor Irek Kusmierczyk explained that expropriation is “a very violent action” that can be justified only if necessary and only for a clearly defined public good. The councillor challenged the necessity of the proposed expropriation, given that 200 acres of neighbouring land are available for development: “That is a lot of land. It’s not as if they’re in a pinch. The land is there. The question is do they really need the additional four acres of land?”
Councillor Kusmierczyk noted that an expropriation for a to-be-determined land use also fails the necessity test: “This is basically a hypothetical. And I do not believe that the city should be in the business of seizing somebody’s home – kicking them off their property – for a hypothetical economic development.” He warned that expropriating without an imminent use for the property “sets a very dangerous precedent.”
Councillor Rino Bortolin shared his colleague’s concerns. “I think expropriation is a last resort and only when absolutely necessary…. [W]ith no current need I cannot support such actions.”
The two councillors also questioned the fairness of using expropriation to eventually benefit a private company. Councillor Kusmierczyk expressed “serious reservations” about a government forcibly transferring property from one private owner to another private owner – a for-profit private owner at that. Councillor Bortolin likewise explained, “I also have trouble expropriating private land for what will end up being a private development…. [T]o take private lands from one party only to sell them to another private entity for economic development seems wrong to me.”
To make matters worse, the city assumes that the eventual development won’t be viable without subsidies. The expropriation falls under Windsor’s Economic Revitalization Community Improvement Plan – a 2011 plan to provide financial incentives to encourage new investment, diversify the local economy, and create jobs. The plan enables the city to assemble land, to prepare it for development, and then to attract new business with the promise of municipal property tax breaks and development charge offsets. The need for such subsidies suggests that the development will be economically unsound.
So-called economic development can have other costs as well. As Councillor Bortolin explained, “We have a long history of destroying old neighbourhoods in this community with the promise of economic development as the key reason. It’s a bad habit that needs to be avoided.”
The two councillors’ principled opposition failed to persuade their colleagues: At the February 22 council meeting, eight councillors and the mayor resolved to expropriate.
Reaction in the Windsor Star revealed disgust and suspicion on the part of the public. One exasperated reader asked, “What ever happened to real capitalism?” Several noted the ready supply of used vacant properties across the city, leading one to wonder why the city didn’t revitalize them rather than farmland. Some condemned city council for “kicking homeowners off their land in order to give handouts to developers.” Some alleged corruption, while others simply pointed out that private investors – rather than taxpayers – would gain. Rather than benefiting taxpayers, one wrote, the city is “wasting millions of taxpayers’ monies chasing tails.” Another admitted, “as an ordinary citizen I’m just realizing how badly we are being screwed.”
Whatever the costs to the two targeted homeowners and to Windsor’s citizens, it would be pointless to fight the expropriation. Ondrej Sabo, the lawyer representing one homeowner, explained that challenging city council’s decision would be “a futile effort.” Although he remained unconvinced that the taking was necessary, given the availability of other land, he explained, “it’s almost impossible to really fight it…. It’s like swimming upstream when you’re trying to fight a recommendation that says it’s in the city’s best interest.”