Condemnation gold rush is on

By Brian Ochsner Like the California gold miners in the 1800s with a white-hot desire for the precious metal, local governments seem to have a fever to exercise eminent domain on as much property as the law will allow. By condemning and declaring properties ‘blighted’ or undesirable, cities have allowed larger businesses (such as Wal-Mart and other ‘big-box’ stores) to develop them for a ‘better use.’ Translated: More sales and higher sales tax revenues. Think it’s not a growing problem, and it couldn’t happen to you in Colorado? Guess what - it already is. Here’s what led to the current situation.

The Kelo v. New London Supreme Court decision last summer gave local governments the ‘all clear’ to declare open season on properties that didn’t contribute their ‘fair share’ of taxes – at least in the eyes of elected officials. Never mind that it didn’t fit the original Constitutional intent of the eminent domain law. That’s where land taken by the government through eminent domain is only for public use – not a ‘higher and better’ private use.

Politicians are usually pretty good at reading the mood of the electorate. I believe that local governments see this rising tide of opposition to expanded eminent domain powers. Lawmakers in Colorado and Tennessee are considering legislation that will restrict eminent domain to be exercised for only public use – the original intent of the law.

There’s also been a strong backlash against the Kelo decision by groups like Colorado Freedom Works. An amendment to Colorado’s constitution that would restrict eminent domain to only public projects may be on the ballot this November. Because of this smaller-government tsunami of opinion, most elected officials want to get as much tax revenue possible through eminent domain, before this window of opportunity slams shut on their greedy fingers.

On the public-relations front, you’ll probably see stories or hear rhetoric about land being condemned because of ‘public safety reasons,’ ‘cleaning up old junkyards,’ and the oldie-but-goodie: ‘for the sake of the children.’

And surely you won’t stand in the way of progress, such as developments like the “Super Slab?” That’s the proposed $2 billion, 210-mile private toll road that would extend from Ft. Collins to Pueblo. Why, how can any rational person be against that? I can be against it, because I’ve heard this type of rhetoric whenever government wanted to take more of my money through higher sales taxes. Or when it wants to confiscate and redistribute private property for the ‘greater public good.’

Need examples? There was Amendment 23 – the education money-grab; Amendment 35 – the Tobacco Tax boondoggle; and good old Referendum C - the crowning achievement of big-government supporters. Never mind that if the state doesn’t get control of its spending (especially K-12 education), the budget challenges will reoccur. We’ll hear more budget sob stories to justify another grab at your wallet – I can almost guarantee it.

Politicians know the phrase ‘eminent domain’ is increasingly negative to more and more voters. Today they’re using phrases such as redevelopment of blighted areas’ to make the concept sound more appealing. The City of Sheridan, Colorado successfully argued this in Arapahoe County court to take control of a parcel of land.

The current mood – or zeitgeist – among governments seems to be the taxing and taking of as much property and money as possible. It’s like a real-life game of Monopoly, where government condemns property in Brighton and Pueblo, along with Boardwalk and Park Place.

When you feed a hungry animal, it usually behaves better. When you feed government with more money and power, the opposite occurs – they get hungrier and more aggressive. It’s time to put big government on a diet, before they devour more citizens’ rights and property.