Friday, March 29, 2013

Eminent Domain

Eminent domain is becoming a hot topic in my community. The government has always had the right to confiscate lands under the Fifth Amendment, but in doing so they must provide “just” compensation. Per the constitution: “nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation”. Generally, the government seizes land to construct roads, railroads, utilities, etc. However, the U.S. Supreme Court case Kelo v. New London Connecticut in 2005 upheld the local government’s ruling that they could transfer ownership of a woman’s home to a privately owned pharmaceutical company which could potentially generate much more state tax revenue from the land. This ruling essentially made it easy for any local, state, or federal governments to seize land for any public issue.

In 2008, the “Telluride Land Grab” (Town of Telluride v. San Miguel Valley Corporation) case garnered a lot attention. This case upheld the exercise of eminent domain by the town of Telluride over property OUTSIDE the town limits – and thus, one would think, outside the jurisdiction of the town. … The upshot of the ruling is that ANY home rule entity (municipality) can exercise eminent domain ANYWHERE in the state (NOT bounded by geography). This ruling has further increased the power of local governments to seize property. The Colorado Supreme Court has negated the efforts of the legislature to impose at least some reasonable restrictions on the use of this power – which has destroyed many long-standing businesses and uprooted homeowners around the state.

In the past few months, the city of Thornton, Colorado approved a measure to allow the city to seize private property via eminent domain for transfer to private developers. They city hopes this measure would allow them to collect millions in more tax revenues. In Fort Collins, Colorado officials are threatening to use eminent domain to help a private developer acquire a Sears department store in the aging Foothills Mall. In Denver, the city council has authorized the use of eminent domain to seize homes and businesses for private development in the historic Five Points district. The vote puts 246 properties in the commercial corridor—including well-maintained Victorian homes dating back to the 1880s—under threat of condemnation for at least the next seven years.

In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled in Sackett v. EPA, that the EPA could not order the Sackett’s to stop building a home on their property to protect what the EPA determined to be on or around vital wetlands. In 2006, the town of Golden Colorado attempted to seize 65 acres of land outside its jurisdiction. The land was owned by a CBS new affiliate who wanted to build a transmitter on the land. Golden citizens objected because they feared it would ruin their views, home values, and yes they feared radiation poising. Would the town and its citizens object if the land was being used to build a wind farm? This is one problem with eminent domain is that there are conflicting cases. In some cases municipalities seize land to build infrastructure, but in other cases municipalities seize property to protect the environment. I do not think governments can have it both ways and the 2012 Supreme Court decision on Sackett v. EPA may have decided this hypocrisy.

A local town in our county wants to put a similar issue up for referendum. The town of Salida, Colorado wants the people to decide if the city has the right to do what the town of Telluride did in 2008 and what Golden attempted in 2006.

People affected by eminent domain have very few rights. They only have 30 days to petition the claim and in many cases, the government is only providing the land owners 80% of the assessed value of the property. Yes, the government is not giving people their “just” compensation, which incidentally are the values set by the local governments. Talk about hypocrisy.

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