Courts pave over paradise on farm land: Salem OR Capital Press, 1/19/07


Singer Joni Mitchell once wrote the lyrics in her song "Big Yellow Taxi", "Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got, till it's gone, they paved paradise and put up a parking lot."

Seems these days, it's farmland that can be turned into parking lots.

Worse, a terrible legal precedent out of Washington state has now declared that the farmers don't even need to be directly warned their land is being considered for such developments.

Pierce County beef producers Ken and Barbara Miller have lost a Washington Supreme Court case in which they fought against Sound Transit who wanted 1.25 acres of their property for a park-and-ride lot for a South Tacoma train platform.

The transit agency never bothered to contact the Millers directly about the project. Instead it posted a notice about a public meeting on its website.

The notice never mentioned the name of the farmers, or gave the address or property's parcel number, but the court ruled this was adequate notice.

In a 5-4 decision, the court explained why the transit agency could do what it wanted. "While precedent on this subject is sparse, posting on a public website is at least as likely to provide the community with notice as the specifically approved notice given to a newspaper," wrote Justice Mary Fairhurst for the majority.

It didn't matter that the Millers had never used the Internet before this happened, or that they have fought three years to save their land.

One of the dissenting justices seemed a bit more sympathetic to the plight of the Millers.

"It is highly optimistic to expect a landowner's click of the computer mouse to lead, at the right time and on the right site, to a posted proposal bearing on his property interests."

How many people would even think to check online if their land is being targeted? How many people would know where and when to look, or even recognize it's their property if that wasn't specifically mentioned?

New world order
Welcome to the world of eminent domain and why it has angered and caught the attention of the agricultural community across America.

Farmers are learning the hard way such terms as eminent domain and condemnation. Originally, those terms were usually reserved for when governments needed low-valued or blighted property to meet its needs for public use.

But then the Kelo court case at the U.S. Supreme Court level determined that a government could condemn "underutilized" private land for other private parties and developments. More jobs and higher tax revenue could be used as reasons to condemn land.

At the time, there were warnings this could mean farmland would be threatened.

During the recent American Farm Bureau Federation annual meeting, voting delegates adopted a resolution showing how much it opposed "the use of eminent domain for recreational purposes, open space, private economic development or to expand the land holdings of wildlife agencies."

AFBF added that eminent domain should not be used to condemn or transfer property from one private entity to another for economic development or other private use.

This year, delegates strengthened their policy to add "any condemning entity must negotiate in good faith to acquire property before initiating condemnation. The condemning entity should be penalized if it did not negotiate in good faith." They added that if private property is taken, the just and adequate compensation should include legal costs and "expert witness fees, associated costs, relocation costs, appraisals including highest and best use, replacement costs and participation fees."

The Washington state case shows how Sound Transit did not negotiate in good faith. It didn't negotiate at all.

If governments and agencies ever wondered why there is so much mistrust and frustration with them by the public, this is a blatant example of misuse of power and arrogance.

Everyone knows land use and property rights are some of the most sensitive issues in this country, yet Sound Transit still stooped to this tactic.

The court should also be criticized for the decision it made. This ruling must be challenged for the awful precedent it has set.

The agency didn't have the decency to contact the ranchers, in person or by mail, and only posted its intent of the project on a website in a matter that was too vague to even identify the property.

Bad-faith effort
What's to stop other government agencies, utility companies and others from adopting similar tactics when they desire valuable farm land or other private property? Using the Internet-only tactic is shameful, but proved successful for an agency that didn't have the guts to negotiate in good faith with the farmers.

By the time Ken and Barbara Miller found out about their land was being targeted, it was too late to fight back.

As Capital Press reported earlier, at first the Millers were offered $500,000 for their land. Others in the area had been offered several times that amount for their land. After the court decision, Sound Transit lowered its offer to the Millers to $240,000, adding even more of an insult and monetary pain to the couple.

Now they're struggling to at least get enough to have a little left over after they pay the $200,000 in legal fees they built up as they tried to protect their interests.

At agricultural meetings this winter there is growing frustration being expressed about how valuable agricultural land is being so easily stolen from farmers and ranchers.

Government thieves
Stolen is the right term, not bought. The agricultural community feels it doesn't have enough input into what happens to the land, nor is there fair compensation being offered.

Now is the time to urge and support politicians who may work to change eminent domain laws and practices.

In Washington state, Gov. Chris Gregoire and State Attorney General Rob McKenna are working on legislation that proposes that if a local government considers acquiring property by eminent domain, it needs to send a certified letter to the property owner with notification of an open public meeting to decide the issue and also publish a short newspaper legal notice.

These are good first steps, but it is already too late to help the Millers.

AFBF's policy statement offers some other ways to protect farmland from eminent domain, but ultimately, these land negotiations should be done in good faith and fair compensation should be offered.

What Sound Transit did was disgusting and done in bad faith. It was also deeply immoral, despite what a court ruled about its legality.

It's time to speak up for the land that is valued for agriculture before it becomes more parking lots.

Salem OR Capital Press: http://www.capitalpress.info