Lemon: Big Brother doesn’t know best | VailDaily.com

Lemon: Big Brother doesn’t know best

Heather Lemon
Vail CO, Colorado

The merry King Ron, Town of Nova

From the people he tried to “takeova”

“Tis my land, I know betta”

“But we live here, big fella”

And they voted him down twice and over.

The voters’ rejection of the May 6 ballot question amending the Avon town charter should be a clear signal to our elected officials that government has already gone too far in the taking of private property rights. Yet reaction thus far seems to lament the inadequate information made available, and offers the poor turnout as further proof that the public does not care, giving justification to the notion that government knows best.

For argument’s sake, let’s grant any town council the right to sell town land to anyone. Then using the powers of eminent domain as affirmed in the Supreme Court decision in 2005, Kelo v. City of New London, the town can take any piece of private property (yes, with compensation), they deem to be for the public good, but use the property possibly in a one-to-one private development. In the worst case, a corrupt town council in cahoots with a more-than generous developer could be in the land grab real estate business at least for their term of office. In the best case, the decision of the few dictates what is or is not public good. As argued by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, dissenting from the split Supreme Court decision, “any Motel 6 can be taken to put up a Ritz Carlton.”

Private property rights are fundamental to our rights as citizens of the United States. The Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution provides that “no person shall . . . be deprived of . . . property without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation.” Amendment XIV extends these protections to state actions “. . . nor shall any State deprive any person of . . . property without due process of law.” The principle of private property can be traced to 450 B.C., codified in early Roman law that defined setback lines and boundaries. William Blackstone, an 18th-century English common law scholar (a contemporary to the drafters of the U.S. Constitution who published his treatise on English law in 1765) stated that property rights could not be violated “even for the general good of the whole community.”

The ballot question on its face seemed innocent enough. The town wanted to streamline the process to sell town land without the time and cost ($10,000?) of a special election or ballot question. So how does this benign charter amendment lead to a whole discussion of private property rights?

The ballot question would have consolidated more power in the town council. This may have been efficient for town planning purposes, but is symptomatic of government taking it upon themselves to decide the will of the people. The rights of the citizens of Avon, and anywhere else where government is moving to redevelop, are fundamental to the process. We have already seen condemnations for a fire house or perhaps some private development on Nottingham Road, action to take private property for a bus station, and a retraction of vested rights in private property development by ordinance that basically canceled contractual commitments.

The town has big plans for redevelopment. The plan looks good. A town center, straightening of the road, a pedestrian mall, retail and professional office space all in the future vision of the town. The plan will generate more revenue for the town, and the town in theory could provide more service to the citizens. The problem is, of course, private property rights stand in the way of the great master plan.

With the expansion of the definition of public use to allow economic development condemnations, private property rights are ripe for the taking in Avon. Voting down the ballot question is a step in the right direction, but as citizens it is critical for us to remain vigilant. We may wake up one morning to discover that “they paved paradise to put up a parking lot.”

Heather Lemon of Eagle-Vail writes a biweekly column for the Vail Daily. She can be reached at lemonvail@aol.com. E-mail comments about this column to letters@vaildaily.com.

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