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Michigan Legal Milestones
33. Poletown and Eminent Domain

In an effort to bolster Detroit's crumbling economic base, a working-class neighborhood known as Poletown was demolished to make way for a new General Motors plant. Poletown and Eminent Domain was commemorated on December 2, 2008, at the Polish National Alliance Council in Hamtramck. The plaque will be permanently installed at Zussman Park outside Hamtramck City Hall.

Michigan Bar Journal


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Poletown and Eminent Domain

In an attempt to keep the automobile industry centered in the Motor City, the cities of Detroit and Hamtramck joined forces with General Motors Corporation in 1980 to condemn a working-class neighborhood known as Poletown to make room for a new plant to build Buick, Oldsmobile, and Cadillac products.

While most residents agreed to sell their homes and businesses, not everyone was satisfied with their buyout offers. A small, vocal group of protesters staged sit-ins and demonstrations that attracted national attention. They waged a public relations and legal battle against GM and the two cities, claiming that government could not use its power of eminent domain to transfer property from individuals to private corporations.

In a landmark 5-2 decision in March 1981, the Michigan Supreme Court rebuffed the challenge (Poletown Neighborhood Council v. Detroit), allowing GM to build a state-of-the-art plant employing up to 6,000 workers. It was an important ruling that set a new legal standard expanding the power of eminent domain by allowing the definition of public use to include economic development.

In 2004, the Michigan Supreme Court reversed its Poletown decision (County of Wayne v. Hathcock), ruling that taking property for developing a business or technology park did not constitute a valid public use under the state's Constitution.

Placed by the State Bar of Michigan and the Detroit Metropolitan Bar Association, December 2, 2008.