Private use vs. public benefit |

Private use vs. public benefit

Veronica WhitneyDaily Staff Writer

AVON – For some residents, the town’s plan to condemn a piece of private land means a new and larger bus hub. For Al Williams, the owner of the land who on March 22 was served with papers saying the town plans to buy his land, it means he might have to give up his rights to develop his property.And one resident, who said he believes in a government’s powers of eminent domain, also Jones said it should be used as a last resort.”If used judiciously and appropriately it’s sometimes the only way to accomplish the good for the masses,” said Brian Jones, a former resident of Avon who now lives in Eagle-Vail. The town’s plans are to expand its regional transportation hub (where the buses stop) by forcibly buying one-third of an 1-acre parcel owned by Williams. The town has offered Williams $674,800 for the lot that sits next to the Avon Town Square on Benchmark Road. The new transit center will replace the one at the Avon Center, which, according to town Manager Larry Brooks, doesn’t meet the town’s needs anymore. But to Peter Buckley, a former councilman in Avon who lives in Wildridge, it’s the wrong move at the wrong time.”There’s a U.S. Supreme Court case pending and the court will decide what the power of the municipality is in condemning private property,” Buckley said. A key attribute of eminent domain is that the government can exercise its power even if the owner does not wish to sell his or her property. The town of Avon filed its petition for condemnation with Eagle County District Court on March 15. Case lawIn Kelo v. New London, Conn., the Connecticut Supreme Court last year upheld the city’s right to transfer powers of economic domain to a private business for economic development. The case, which was argued in February before the U.S. Supreme Court, will be resolved in June.In Avon, however, the town is attempting to take over the land for public use. There are no plans to give or sell it to a private company or owner. “We only litigate those cases where the government uses power of eminent domain to transfer property from one private owner to another,” said Steve Anderson, of the Castle Coalition, a Washington D.C.-based grassroots property rights activism project. “In the past 50 years the public use clause has been expanded to private use.”More than 10,000 properties nationwide were taken or threatened by eminent domain between 1998 and 2002, according to the Institute for Justice, a Washington-based public interest law firm. Currently, eminent domain lawsuits are pending in at least a dozen states, including Michigan, New Jersey, Ohio, Connecticut, New York and Florida. The Institute for Justice began its fight against eminent domain abuse by successfully defending Vera Coking, an elderly widow from Atlantic City, against the condemnation of her home by a state agency. The agency tried to take her property and transfer it -at a bargain price -to another private individual: Donald Trump. Trump wanted the property for a limousine parking lot for his customers.What’s next door? Anderson said the Constitution allows eminent domain for public uses. Historically, public use has included bridges, schools, courthouses, post offices, police stations – things commonly used by the public. Exceptions where private companies have been able to take land include railroads utilities and canals.”The question is, what is the real meaning of the public use clause of the Fifth Amendment,” Anderson said.To Buckley, the town used its authority well when he was still on the council more than a year ago when it condemned a crumbling ridge next to the Sunridge apartment buildings that people were using to cross the Eagle River. “It was totally unsafe and we condemned it, we disassembled it,” he said. “It was good use of condemnation for public purpose.”Brooks said Williams’ piece of land, near Avon’s hotels and condominiums, is the best spot for a bus center. The town expects to take immediate possession of the land at a hearing yet to be scheduled in District Court, Brooks said. The town served Williams with condemnation papers after he didn’t respond to an offer the town made for the land. The town, which hired a company from Englewood to do the appraisal, offered Williams $674,800 for his land. The price includes $504,800 for the property, $50,000 for improvements – the land has a paved parking lot – and $120,000 for compensable damages based on the decline in market value of the remainder of the property or severance damage. Williams, who declined to comment for this story, can still make a counter offer or get his own appraiser.Buckley said building a new transit hub before knowing what will be built on a large, adjacent piece of land known as “The Confluence” isn’t smart. And it isn’t fair that Williams has to give up his land also before knowing what will happen with the confluence site. One possibility for the land is the launching point for a gondola to Beaver Creek Mountain, a development likely to increase the value of Williams’ land, he said.Another problem with public-use condemnation is that people don’t always get paid what their property is worth, Anderson said.”We’re optimistic (the Kelo) ruling could affect property owners regardless the outcome,” he said.Bu Avon Mayor Ron Wolfe, who voted to approve the condemnation, said the town needs the bus center.”This is the ideal location for it and we made a fair offer to the owner,” Wolfe said. “The next step is going though the condemnation procedures through court.”Staff Writer Veronica Whitney can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 454 or Vail, Colorado

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