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Landowners left out

January 20, 2008

To the editor:

The proposed home rule charter fails Washington County landowners. As a member of the charter board, I was concerned about two items the board failed to include. The proposed charter offers county residents no protection from eminent domain abuse and it offers no broader protections for property owners.

Eminent domain allows government to take private property for public use, provided government provides just compensation and obeys due process. But as the infamous 2005 Kelo v. New London Supreme Court ruling made clear, government often abuses its eminent domain power, seizing private land and redistributing it to developers.

Public outcry over Kelo resulted in many state and local governments adopting laws to reduce eminent domain abuse. As part of that movement, I recommended a similar protection be placed in the proposed charter. Unfortunately, the majority of board members refused to grant county residents that protection. The board disagreed on the legality of this clause, since eminent domain is generally a prerogative of the state. It should have been included and if it were not legally enforceable, then the county council could ask the court to take it out.

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I also proposed placing broader property rights protections in the proposed charter. I made this proposal in light of Washington County's recent fight over rezoning - a fight that has left local farmers and other rural landowners with greatly reduced property values. The rezoning was supposed to alleviate the county's development problems and protect its rural way of life, but complaints about growth woes continue while those who preserve the county's rural way of life pay the price of lower equity in their property.

My proposal was intended to make county government more respectful and appreciative of rural landowners. If the county wanted to take property rights, then it should pay for those rights.

Again, unfortunately, the majority of board members refused to grant county residents that protection.

Because the committee refused to grant these protections, the proposed charter places county landowners at much greater risk than the county's current form of government. Moreover, because the charter would adopt a thoroughly inadequate public referendum process, county residents would have little recourse in opposing bad property laws adopted by the new county council.

The charter should have protected the rights and enhanced the welfare of county citizens. Instead, the charter board chose to enhance the power and authority of local elected officials and bureaucrats.

County voters with an important choice when they vote next month.

Should they approve a very flawed new form of county government or demand that Washington County craft something better?

Tom Berry
Charter Board member

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