State legislature must protect property rights
by Linn and Ari Armstrong
The following article was originally published by Grand Junction Free Press on September 19, 2005.
It's no surprise that tyrannical governments in places like Zimbabwe and China expropriate private property. But the United States was founded on the principles of individual rights. The Bill of Rights assures us, "nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation."
Tell that to Susette Kelo of Connecticut. The Institute for Justice summarizes, "The City [of New London]handed over its power of eminent domain -- the ability to take private property for public use -- to the New London Development Corporation (NLDC), a private body, to take the entire neighborhood [including Kelo's home] for private development."
And then the Supreme Court ruled against the homeowners in Kelo v. New London. Yet the ruling effectively pushed the issue of eminent domain to the states.
Thankfully, a large number of Colorado activists and legislators are determined to add protections for property to state law so that local governments and private developers cannot abuse the power of forcibly transferring land.
State Rep. Josh Penry, a Republican, said of eminent domain and the Supreme Court's interpretation of the Fifth Amendment, "The U.S. Constitution left the door open to the states and the states are going to slam the door shut." He added that the popularity of reforms assures the issue "will transcend party lines."
And Rep. Bernie Buescher, a Democrat, said, "We must be very careful when we let municipalities use eminent domain." He said that building a road may be among "legitimate uses for eminent domain for valid government purposes." Of course, defining what purposes may be "valid" is no easy task.
On the other side of the mountains, the group Colorado Citizens for Property Rights (CCPR) is already evaluating legislation for the 2006 session to rein in eminent domain. Marsha Looper, executive director for the group, is looking for more members in Grand Junction and the Western Slope to organize local support of property-rights measures. CCPR already has regional leaders from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs. Looper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
CCPR has expressed two main goals. First, the group wants to stop government from forcibly transferring property to private developers. Second, it wants to stop private developers from using eminent domain directly.
Last Thursday, the Transportation Legislative Review Committee met at the capitol. Two legislators discussed bills to limit eminent domain.
State Senator Tom Wiens of Castle Rock plans to introduce legislation to prevent private toll roads from using eminent domain. The major concern is the Front Range Toll Road, or "superslab." (Of course, private developers are always free to pursue property on the open market, without the use of government force.) Wiens introduced such a bill last year that was vetoed by Governor Bill Owens.
Wiens said current law needs to be changed because it was written "before the invention of the automobile" and it too readily gives private companies the power of eminent domain. He said his bill would "do away with the cloud that still hangs over so many individuals" who own property in the affected area. He's interested in sending a measure to the ballot for popular vote.
He noted his bill would still allow "private funding of public toll roads," with restrictions.
Rep. Jack Pommer of Boulder said he also wanted to introduce legislation to address the process of eminent domain by toll roads.
One senator asked whether Wiens would pursue his bill even if it didn't go through the review committee. Pommer said, "Were hell to freeze over, I think it's safe to assume that Senator Wiens would go forward with it."
Wiens replied, "You're quite accurate about that."
Wiens said that the Kelo decision allows so-called "economic development" to override private property rights. "I don't think that in the West, we think that way," he added.
He said that his bill would not take care of all the problems surrounding eminent domain, but it would at least clear up one important issue. After that, he said, "We've got a lot of work to do."
Looper watched from the audience. The night before (September 14), her group had met in Denver. At that meeting a new member agreed, "The battle has to be fought at the state legislature."
Steve Rowe, CCPR's Northern Counties Director, reviewed the idea of removing the power of eminent domain from urban renewal. One member suggested, "Urban renewal works fine with the free market."
Ric Miller, another member, said that agriculture is sometimes a target of eminent domain because local governments believe they can increase the tax base by forcibly replacing farms with developments.
At a meeting last month, Miller perfectly summed up the Western support for property rights: "To take somebody else's rights is just so un-American, it just kind of rubs you the wrong way... Don't come condemning us."