A shoddy governmental practice
Published 6:57 pm Tuesday, August 2, 2016
The taking of private land for public use is a practice as old as government itself. Politely known as “eminent domain” and more bluntly called “condemnation,” it is, essentially, the public’s right to seize private property owned by fellow citizens for a perceived public need. And the term “public” is broadly defined, both as to who can do the condemning and for what purpose.
Those with the right to condemn not only include government, but also a variety of quasi-public agencies, particularly public utilities. And the needs for condemned property are often very real. America’s public highway system could not have been built without condemnation, to say nothing of the electric grid that lights our world. The “need” becomes more debatable when less-broadly enjoyed public uses are the reason and when alternatives to condemnation are available.
It can certainly be argued that bicycle trails, for now a growing fad, but someday possibly an important part of our transportation system, are legitimate public needs worthy of taking people’s property against their will.
What is not justified, in my view, is government’s approach to condemnation. It is invariably shoddy and Isle of Wight’s taking of property along Nike Park and Battery Park roads was precisely that. Put simply, the right to seize property is not to right to do so on the cheap.
Government admittedly has a conflict here. Government officials — in this instance the Board of Supervisors — always has an obligation to protect tax dollars. At least, they will always tell you that, whether it appears they are doing so or not.
But in the case of condemnation, I believe the “little guy” needs protection as well, and that’s the property owner. If we, the public, want to take our neighbor’s property, then we have an obligation to pay a fair market value for that property as well as to compensate our neighbor for losing the right to own and enjoy his property, something we are not being called on to do.
But in more than four decades of watching government strong-arm people out of their property, I do not recall seeing government act in a manner that I would consider equitable or neighborly, and the bike trail takings are a case in point.
Those who, for a variety of reasons, did not fight the out-of-town consultants that the Board of Supervisors hired to take their land from them were paid a pittance compared to those who screamed “foul” and hired a lawyer.
Dealing with the local Board of Supervisors should not come to that, but it always does.
Isle of Wight County has treated property owners caught up in this taking with a total disregard for their feelings and their economic welfare.
The county should step forward and voluntarily give those who accepted the pitiful first offer additional funds as public penance for treating them so poorly.
In addition to trying to buy land on the cheap, this particular condemnation carries the added indignity of protecting the county’s tax base. Property owners lose most rights to their road front land but must continue to pay full taxes on that land. How bad is that. The loss of road frontage should be the basis for a significant reduction in taxes in perpetuity on the land that’s been taken.
Let’s accept that the bike trail is to be built. Fine. But let’s be fair to those on whose backs it is being built — the property owners of Nike Park and Battery Park roads.