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Which provides the greater good: a furniture store, or residents' homes?
NEW ROCHELLE, New York (CNN) -- City officials in New Rochelle, New York, are considering using the legal power of eminent domain to force dozens of residents to sell their homes and property to make way for -- not a bridge or a highway or a dam -- but a furniture store.
IKEA, the national furniture store chain, is involved in a city project that officials say would be an economic boon to a neighborhood in need of improvement. But the plan would also displace residents of 34 homes, employees at 29 businesses and the congregations of two churches.
Eminent domain is a legal authority provided to governments that can force property owners to sell their land to the state for the greater good of a community. Governments often use it to clear land for highway construction or other public works projects.
But residents say eminent domain does not fit the IKEA proposal.
"We'd be totally different if it was for public works or water works or something the community really needed," said David Newmark, whose business is threatened by the proposed store construction. "The community doesn't really need a furniture store."
Recent community protests against the IKEA proposal have shown support for Newmark and others targeted by the project. But so far, the city's mayor continues to stand by the concept. Apparently it's a matter of which firm ultimately will be involved, whether it be IKEA or another store.
At issue: Hundreds of jobs, millions of dollars
"It's an area that's in real need of sprucing up," said New Rochelle Mayor Timothy Idoni. "And the question here is whether IKEA is the right fit for it or not." Idoni and other supporters say the IKEA idea could generate hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars in sales tax revenue.
"At the age of 77, where am I going to go? What do I have to do? Start all over again?" asked Dominick Gataletto, whose home, where he has lived since the age of two, stands in the way of the proposed IKEA outlet.
"We can't replace their memories of their home on the site," said Michael McDonald, president of IKEA Property Inc. "But we can at least make them comfortable and to look out for them the best we can from relocation."
But the question of whether the local economic benefits of a retail store outweigh the anguish and hardship of property owners who lose their homes speaks to a larger issue: Are the nation's eminent domain laws expanding to unreasonable levels?
Expert: eminent domain laws broadening
"The test for it has always been public use or public purpose," said Professor Richard Briffault of Columbia Law School. "I think the notion of what is public use or purpose has gotten much broader."
Gataletto said the project would hurt him in both tangible and intangible ways.
"In effect, they want my property to build a furniture store here," Gataletto said. "And they want to take away my house, and most important, my memories."
Correspondent Frank Buckley contributed to this report.
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