Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The federal bank of eminent domain

Eminent domain is a power of the government that is tacitly recognized in the Fifth Amendment of the US Constitution which reads, "…nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation." Over the course of our nation’s history that ability to force the sale of land for common good has been abused. It’s not uncommon to hear horror stories of municipalities basically stealing homes for corporate, not public, benefit and the federal government taking away precious ranchland and transforming it into an idled preserve.

Sometimes, the only thing that prevents the government from further abusing this power is money. If it doesn’t have it, the supposed fair trade for land cannot take place. Some members of Congress, though, are trying to change that by creating a perpetually well-funded Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF).

The LWCF was created in 1964 and is the primary source of funding for federal land acquisition for the purpose of conservation and/or recreation. It also provides grants to state and local governments for the same. Using a variety of funding methods (taxes) its annual authorization has been set at $900 million since 1977. But, that cap has been met only twice during the program’s history because it’s not a true trust fund in the sense that the $900 million in taxes collected do not have to be given to LWCF. The funds are typically diverted by Congress for other purposes. Case in point: Last year, the LWCF received just $300 million.

In federal budget negotiations that just ended days ago, the LWCF was reauthorized for another three years and the fund is guaranteed $450 million for next year. Many Congressmen are looking to overcome that regularly-occurring budgetary obstacle with, of course, new means of taxation that would fully fund to $900 million the LWCF every year and, at the same time, make a permanent account for it. Under that scenario, the government will have nearly-limitless reserves to buy up land that it sees as being necessary to the betterment of the environment or the advancement of outdoor pursuits.

This sounds all well and good, but it should be noted, though, that government is a primary stakeholder of land in our country. The federal government owns in excess of 640 million acres while state and local governments own another 200 million acres, accounting for almost 40 percent of the nation’s landmass.

Despite such earthly possessions, the government wants more. That’s because the control of the masses is most easily attained through public ownership of property. Think about your frustrations as a homeowner whose property rights have been tempered with onerous building codes and property taxes. Now, imagine that heartache and stress magnified a thousandfold by being a one-time property owner who was forced out of possession of land through eminent domain. Just ask anyone who has lost land in such a manner to the government; the monetary "rewards" of the mandatory sale (which are often below market value) never make you whole in the pocketbook or in the heart.

With the green movement as mainstream as it is and a good percentage of the population willing to abandon human progress for the perceived benefit of Mother Nature, environmental concerns, rather than the ages-old reasons for eminent domain (like roads, municipal complexes, urban renewal), will dominate the reasoning for federal and state land grabs. That said, rural landowners will now be in the crosshairs as it is they who have the lands and habitats (forests, grasslands, waterways) that are so prized by the environmentalists. This will have a major impact on economic activities like logging, farming, and ranching, just as it will on regular folks who want to enjoy personal liberty on their own lands.

That said, we must reach out to Congress and ensure that LWCF does not grow out of control. Sure, public ownership of land is a good thing (for instance, every community deserves a park, and the Adirondack Park is an awesome gift to the world) but there can be too much of a good thing. We are reaching a tipping point where, someday within the next two decades, government will own half the land in the country -- and that’s not a good thing for liberty.

From the 28 December 2015 Greater Niagara Newspapers

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