Guest: Oklahoma Turnpike Authority is misusing eminent domain. Legislators need to act.

In 1999, I was one of thousands of residents who got a crash course in "eminent domain" as practiced by the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority and the Oklahoma Department of Transportation.

Few of us had considered having our homes forcibly taken by a government exercising its police power under the threat of violence, driven not by a public outcry to solve a true public need, but by private commerce and development moguls seeking personal enrichment, taking the private property of those less powerful than they.

That's what we faced when the turnpike authority, Transportation Department and Association of Central Oklahoma Governments announced their intent to build massive metro-area "outer loop" highways. Most likely to be toll roads stretching from Norman to Edmond, the roads would have used the eminent domain process to throw thousands of families out of their homes and seize thousands of acres of private property.

Turnpike protesters hold signs during a January meeting of the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority at the Oklahoma Department of Transportation building.
Turnpike protesters hold signs during a January meeting of the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority at the Oklahoma Department of Transportation building.

Most folks knew of the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and were familiar with government's ability to take private property for public use. The amendment reads, in part, "No person shall be ... deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation."

In my naiveté, I thought government "takings" of private property were limited to urgent public need projects that could only be accomplished by forcibly taking someone's private property, and that proof of crucial public need must exist. Plus, the eminent domain victims would receive "just compensation" to pay them for their loss. Wow, was I in for a rude awakening.

I learned government agencies over the decades twisted and perverted eminent domain into an intimidating tool of "economic development," all at the behest of private commerce and development groups who believe they are entitled to shape the world's future at everyone else's expense. The "public use" requirement morphed into "public benefit," which turned into private property being taken for private use, with an incidental "public benefit" being used to gloss over what was really happening.

Another take:Guest: Oklahoma Turnpike Authority's property purchases vital for building roadways

Forget property being taken to build schools or other public facilities; the oddball logic hinged on property bringing in more tax dollars as, say, a big-box retail store, rather than your humble private home. Government could take your property and give it to private business folks who would "develop" it into something bringing in mountains of tax money, and, of course, mountains of money for themselves.

Oklahoma was blessed that the 1999 outer loop toll road scam fizzled. People saw through the government's alarmist traffic projections and saw instead a greedy land grab leveraging eminent domain to benefit the few at the expense of the many. All the arguments supporting the outer loop failed the test of closer scrutiny.

The governments of Norman, Arcadia, Jones, Choctaw and the Kickapoo Tribe passed resolutions opposing the eastern outer loop highway project in their areas. Secretary of Transportation Neal McCaleb agreed and declared in an April 16, 1999, letter to The Oklahoman, "The eastern portion of the outer loop is dead. The alignment is no longer a viable option ... When those groups expressed that they did not want the outer loop in their communities, we dropped the plan entirely."

More:Exclusive: Oklahoma lawmaker was paid $100K over appraisal for home in turnpike expansion route

Fast forward to 2023. Neal McCaleb has moved on. The turnpike authority and its developer pals have exhumed the "dead" OKC eastern outer loop toll road idea using the same discredited reasons that failed before.

Eminent domain reform laws are pending in the Oklahoma Legislature; they need to pass. It's time for eminent domain to be restricted to its original intent.

Dave Moore
Dave Moore

Dave Moore, founder of the nonprofit Internet Safety Group Ltd., is a Certified Information Systems Security Professional and has lived in Norman for 53 years.

This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: Guest: Oklahoma Turnpike Authority must end misuse of eminent domain