1/01/2006

Eminent domain — Recreation can be legitimate use of this government power Anchorage (AK) Daily News, 12/29/05

Opinion

Eminent domain, a standard power granted to government under the U.S. and Alaska constitutions, sure is getting a bad rap these days.

It started with a controversial U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allows the government to take property (albeit at fair market value) for private redevelopment projects. Critics on the left and right assailed the ruling. Many states and cities, Anchorage included, reacted with laws saying their governments can't use eminent domain in the way the court had authorized.

It was an understandable and legitimate response. Turning government-condemned land over to private owners leaves too much room for abuse by well-connected development interests. If there's a strong enough public purpose to justify the government forcing someone to sell against his wishes, the property should remain in public ownership.

Now comes Anchorage Assemblyman Chris Birch. He wants to pile additional restrictions on the city's potential use of eminent domain. He's hoping his colleagues will agree to limit the city's power to force the sale of a property interest — even an easement just a couple of feet wide — when it's used exclusively for trails or other so-called "leisure" purposes.

His latest version exempts sidewalks and trails that are done when street and roads are built or upgraded. That change helps limit the damage his proposal might do. But overall, his ordinance is still an overreaction based on the idea that trails and other recreation facilities are somehow frivolous. In fact, they are part of the infrastructure of a healthy community.

Public health officials have pointed out that the nation is in the midst of an obesity epidemic. One major cause is sedentary lifestyles. Getting people active is a legitimate goal of government policy.

The easiest, most popular form of exercise is walking. Making it easier to get around on foot, including purely "recreation" trails, is an important public health measure. In a survey this year by the city parks department, four of the five most popular recreation activities involved trails. Vast numbers of walkers, runners, bikers and skiers ensure the trails are heavily used year round.

An expanding trail network is also part of a balanced metropolitan transportation network. The easier it is to walk or bike or ski, the more people can shop, go to work, or visit friends without hopping in a car. Every time a car is not started, Anchorage's air stays cleaner.

Those who oppose the southern extension of the Coastal Trail hope Birch's ordinance will drive a stake in project's heart. The southern route requires easements along small slices of many properties. Some easements are below the bluff, out of sight of the owner's house. In other places, the trail needs to cross small sections of private property alongside a public street or road.

Birch's ordinance would give the most recalcitrant homeowner veto power over the entire trail extension. Letting one person kill a project that serves thousands of people in the entire community is clearly not in the public interest.

Given the Assembly's conservative tilt, and demonstrated hostility to the Coastal Trail extension, Birch's ordinance may pass. But it's a misguided measure that would make it harder to build the infrastructure that makes Anchorage a healthy community.

BOTTOM LINE: There's no good reason to ban the use of eminent domain for recreational projects in Anchorage.


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