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Limit eminent domain, secure right to private property ownership

James D. Kellogg

Throughout the United States, government and quasi-government bodies are chipping away at private property rights. This is exemplified in western Colorado by property acquisitions of the Roaring Fork Transit Authority (RFTA) to build new Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) stations. The town of Basalt and city of Glenwood Springs endorsed RFTA’s tactic of condemning private parcels within their municipal limits to advance the $46.2 million BRT project.

In the Glenwood Springs instance, RFTA claimed that a strict deadline attached to a $25 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration meant a competing private use proposed for the property needed to be quickly quashed.

Through their support, the message from local leaders is loud and clear: It’s more important to help RFTA spend taxpayer dollars than secure the rights of private property owners.

The founders of our nation believed the right of citizens to acquire and possess property is as unalienable as the right to free speech. Thomas Jefferson declared, “All power is inherent in the people. … They are entitled to freedom of person, freedom of religion, freedom of property, and freedom of press.”

Secure private property rights are a cornerstone of economic growth and sustainability in a free market economy. Our government is responsible for upholding laws, contracts, patents and copyrights to protect private property owners from infringement by others, including government itself.

Property ownership allows the self-sustaining production of wealth (i.e., objects with economic utility) and improvement of standards of living. Private property, which includes more than real estate, is the basis for tax revenue that enables government to ensure national security and domestic tranquility.

Secure private property rights allow individuals to own what they have earned and serve as incentive for the entrepreneurial spirit that drives a vibrant free-market economy.

Notwithstanding, the framers recognized that eminent domain (i.e., the power of governments to confiscate private property) was required in certain cases to provide infrastructure, such as roads and government buildings, for public use.

However, the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution limits authority of the federal government by stating, “nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” Furthermore, the Fourteenth Amendment states, “nor shall any State deprive any [citizen] of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

The state of Colorado’s power of eminent domain is pursuant to Article II, Section 15 of the Colorado Constitution. Other political subdivisions within the state usually need such power expressly granted by statute. In the case of a transit authority, it is Title 38, Article 1, Section 202 of the Colorado Revised Statutes (C.R.S).

Take a look at this section of the C.R.S. and you’ll be shocked by the long list of entities granted with the power of eminent domain.

Moreover, “public use” has evolved over the past several decades to mean “public benefit.” Today it’s not uncommon for state and local governments to use eminent domain to benefit private parties, arguing the new owner’s project will provide public benefits such as reducing urban blight, enhancing tax base or creating jobs.

Make no mistake. Government is empowered at the expense of individual liberty. Eminent domain is only to be exercised as a last resort under appropriate circumstances. It’s up to citizens to demand concise explanations from elected leaders and appointed bureaucrats to justify any infringement on private property rights.

Does the public use component of a bus station really warrant the use of eminent domain? Can RFTA demonstrate the claimed public use dictates an imperative need to build a BRT station on a specific site as opposed to a property just down the road? What threshold justifies a particular public use to trump the rights of individual citizens?

These questions are brushed aside by assertions that RFTA clearly has the legal authority to confiscate private property … so deal with it.

When Americans are coerced into relinquishing the right to private property ownership, the prospect of lasting life and liberty wanes. Ayn Rand, author of “Atlas Shrugged,” professed, “Without property rights, no other rights are possible. Since man has to sustain his life by his own effort, the man who has no right to the product of his effort has no means to sustain his life.”

BRT stations don’t seem as important now, do they?

On the author’s request, “Right Angles” will appear just once a month, on the third Tuesday. James D. Kellogg of New Castle is a professional engineer, the author of the novel E-Force, and the founder of LiberTEAWatch. com. Visit JamesDKellogg.com or email jamesdkellogg@yahoo.com.