4/16/2006

CBS4 Investigates Fight Over Eminent Domain: CBS-TV4 (Denver CO), 2/23/06

Property owners across Colorado are fighting to restrict the government's use of eminent domain. From the courthouse to the capitol, property owners are doing battle after the U.S. Supreme court ruled last year that it is a legitimate public use to take land for economic development.

The high court ruling has dozens of property owners in Sheridan fighting for the land and businesses they've owned for years.

Richard Downey's story is both the American dream and an American nightmare.

"For the business owners, they're just going to be wiped out," Downey said.

Downey is one of a growing number of property owners in Colorado and across the country who are losing their property to eminent domain.

"Developers have convinced lawmakers that creating revenue should basically replace all their property rights in the big picture, and that's not what this country was built on," Downey said.

Downey began buying up land in Sheridan 25 years ago, and in the process created a lucrative 16 acre storage business. Now, what looks like a junkyard actually grosses Downey $500,000 a year.

The city of Sheridan declared Downey's land and the 120 acres around it blighted. The city also has condemned it, meaning the city will take the land, giving Downey and others "fair market value," regardless of their desire not to want to to sell the property.

"That's the scary part of this," Downey said. "It sets a pattern, and once the pattern is set, the courts start to go along with that pattern, and pretty soon eminent domain will mean we'll take anything for any purpose."

It used to be that cities could only use eminent domain for a public use like a highway or an airport. But last year the U.S. Supreme Court said it was OK for cities to use eminent domain to take someone's land and give it to another private party for development. That's what is happening in Sheridan.

The city plans to give the land in question to a private developer who will spend millions cleaning it up. That developer plans to redevelop the land with restaurants, theaters and big box stores, which would create jobs and increase the city's tax revenues.

Sheridan's mayor Mary Carter said the land was a former landfill that is now contaminated.

"In some places along this area the trash is 60 feet deep and keeps bubbling up from the ground," Carter said. "We can clean up an area that desperately needed it and allow that area to develop into something that we can all be proud of."

Downey doesn't agree.

"If I was standing in the way of a major highway or bridge, you take your lumps and go on, but this is simply a grab for retail tax dollars," Downey said.

But its not just landowners like Downey who are rebelling against eminent domain.

In dozens of state legislatures, including Colorado's, new laws are being introduced that would limit the use of eminent domain. Rep. Al White, a Republican from Winter Park, is sponsoring a Colorado measure that would outlaw using eminent domain to increase tax revenues.

"i believe we are abusing individual citizens' rights to own property by taking them for purposes of increasing tax bases, and I think that's wrong," White said. "I don't think that's an adequate purpose for taking someone's private property in this state and country."

It's too late for Downey in his battle with city government in Sheridan, but he says his plight should serve as a warning.

"It's not just Sheridan, it's a little disease that's going around, that people are beginning to wake up to because they are wondering what's going to happen to any property they might own," Downey said.

The city of Sheridan has offered Downey $1.7 million as fair market value for his property. He believes that's about half of what it is actually worth.


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