City action coins perilous phrase 'eminent disaster': Salem OR Capitol Press, 8/2/07


There was a typographic error in a recent edition of the Capital Press. The article was about a farm in southwest Washington state that had been the victim of a neighboring city's legal proceedings aimed at obtaining its water rights.

The term used in the story was eminent domain. The correct term for that farmer - and potentially for others - is eminent disaster.

Farmers are used to the taking of their land. Developers and city fathers around the West get itchy whenever they see a tract of land that could be converted into tract housing, strip malls, factories and the other accouterments of modern urban expansion. With property tax dollars dancing in their heads, the politicians look for ways to take farmland and make it their land so it can be flipped and developed into a moneymaker.

The issue of eminent domain came to a head in a recent U.S. Supreme Court case in which a Connecticut city made a grab for property so a developer could put it to a "higher use." In other words, the developer makes a bundle, the city gets a cut in the form of higher property taxes and the landowners get a check and the boot.

The court's justices blew the call in that case, agreeing that city-sanctioned greed takes legal precedence over property rights. As a result, landowners everywhere - especially in the West - were put on notice that their land could become another gleam in the eye of the next politician or developer.

Comes now the case in which Mickelsen Dairy faces the prospect of neighboring Winlock, Wash., that is trying to use eminent domain not on its land, which would be bad enough, but on its water rights.

In the West, the value of land is tied directly to the availability of water. Without water, the ability to grow a cash crop is greatly diminished. That a farmer could have his water rights taken through eminent domain not only threatens those rights but the value of his or her land.

The result is a two-fer. The city gets the water for its development and potentially cheaper land for further expansion.

In the Mickelsen Dairy case, the judge agreed that the city's plans do not trump farming as a land use.

So far, so good. But the city has asked the judge reconsider his decision because the dairy has plans to do something else with its land. It has since moved its dairy operations to central Washington state.

"I'm not exaggerating when I say this is a huge issue - that it's a lot bigger than any of us," owner Clinton Mickelsen told the Capital Press. "If we lose, it will affect farms and businesses across the state that have water rights, especially those near urban growth areas. Any growing city will think that all it needs to do is condemn the water rights of a nearby farm."

Though Winlock's mayor says he has no intention of going outside the city's urban growth area to obtain water rights, that may not be the case for every city in Washington state. By proceeding with this case, the Mickelsens and others fear that Winlock would set a precedent, opening the door for other cities to condemn waters rights elsewhere.

If that fear does become a reality, it truly would be a case of eminent disaster.

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