Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Auburn, New York; Eminent Domain; Earth Day - and Lint

"Hotel Conference Center May Trump Private Property in Eminent Domain Case"
FOXNews (April 21, 2010)

"In Auburn, New York, the city is threatening to invoke eminent domain to seize private property for a private hotel conference center, saying the public good outweighs the private property rights of some citizens.

"Would you let the government take your car and give it to someone else? How about your computer, television set, house, or business? What if the government said you would be paid yet you had no choice?

"That's the dilemma in Auburn, New York, where the city is threatening to invoke eminent domain to seize private property for a private project - a hotel conference center, saying the public good outweighs the private property rights of some citizens. And it's legal.

" 'This is abuse, it's one case of eminent domain abuse,' says Renee Smith-Ward, owner of a dog grooming salon, Wag'In Tail, that could be plowed down for the hotel's parking lot. 'I don't believe it's right to take someone's property away from them for a hotel, for a private developer.'..."

I sympathize with Ms. Smith-Ward, but in Auburn, New, York, city hall has the most basic "right" of all. They're bigger, metaphorically speaking, than the property owners. And the Supreme Court of the United States says it's okay for the dudes in city hall to take property away from one person and give it to another. The Supreme Court has more legal clout than any town or city, so that's the way it is.

'For Public Use?' Sure: My Pal Frank, Here, is a Member of the Public, Ain't He?

"Eminent domain" means "the right of the state to take private property for public use; the Fifth Amendment that was added to the Constitution of the United States requires that just compensation be made." (Princeton's Wordnet)

Or, as of five years ago, the right of the state to take private property for private use by somebody who'll do something that city hall thinks is a good idea.

"For the public good," of course. According to whoever is behind the big desk.

The Lemming is a bit skeptical, but I grew up in the sixties: and lost my blind faith in "the government" a long time ago.

Eminent Domain, Old Style: No Guarantee of Honesty

The old definition of "eminent domain," where private property could be seized for things like roads, had its problems too. A town could 'just happen' to award construction contracts to companies owned by the city council's members and buddies.

We got rules about submitting bids and going with the lowest one out of that sort of abuse. Then we're having to make new rules about submitting bids for what the contractors will really charge.

Cynical? The Lemming doesn't think so. Americans are human beings, and that means trouble. I've posted about that, in another blog. Some of us decide to be a little like Mother Teresa of Calcutta, some decide to emulate Joseph Burgess. And some of us have hardware and software (wetware?) glitches in our heads that affect decision-making. Which is yet another topic, in another blog.

Bottom line? Human beings, as a group, are trouble.

Has the Lemming No Compassion? No Sympathy?

I'm making allowances for personal feelings in the case of Ms. Smith-Ward. She's almost certainly put a great deal of time, money and effort into building the Wag'In Tail into the business it is today. And location counts. A lot, for any business that depends on clients or customers finding the place.

Getting your hard work rewarded by an offer you can't refuse - whether from city hall or a more informal authority - doesn't feel good.

Having a decorative bush, two evergreens, and three old trees torn out of my front yard didn't feel good, either: but it happened. That was, in my opinion, a more legitimate application of "eminent domain:" I live on an arterial street that's needed re-engineering for a long time.

I didn't like it: but the project made sense, from a practical point of view. And about 4,000 other people live in this town, too. What my household finds convenient and aesthetically acceptable has to be balanced against what everybody else needs and expects.

The Lemming isn't being altruistic, particularly. I live here, too: and it's nice to have usable streets and sidewalks.

Eminent Domain, Private Projects, and Public Interest

Just when you think you've got your stereotypes in order: something like this happens.

The Lemming hasn't done a thorough job of researching reaction in the blogosphere to the Auburn eminent domain case. And I don't intend to do so. I'm taking medication for high blood pressure, have a low tolerance for daft viewpoints, and don't need that kind of stress.

My guess is that not many people are writing that Auburn's civic leaders are commies, or fifth columnists bent on the subversion of Uncle Sam, Motherhood and Apple Pie. Frank Burns was like that: but he's a character in a seventies sitcom. "Creeping socialism" may even be on the way out, as a too-familiar cliche.

Oddly, at least one of the people at Auburn, New York's, city hall doesn't fit the 'commie pinko' stereotype:

"...'Eminent domain, no one likes it,' concedes Auburn Mayor Michael Quill, a no-nonsense former Marine and long time former Fire Chief of the city, who has a photograph on this desk with former Governor Sarah Palin and Todd Palin. The Palins visited Auburn last summer, in commemoration of the 1867 purchase of the Alaska territory by U.S. Secretary of State William Seward, whose house is across the street from City Hall.

"But it is Auburn's current land dispute that has caused so much controversy here, as Mayor Quill and other officials contend the benefits of the hotel project simply outweigh the concerns of the property owners. 'We have a responsibility to the entire community,' Mayor Quill explains, saying 'we do not want to hurt an individual property owner or business owner, but we have to look at the long range for the entire community.'..."

Mayor Quill fits another stereotype: one I became familiar with while doing time in America's higher education system. Which is yet another topic.

"Fair" isn't Always Realistic

"It's not fair!" is something people start saying somewhere in childhood. Fairness isn't a childish idea, though. You can make it sound more grown-up by using longer words, like "equitable," but it's still the same basic idea.

Sounds simple? Not.

"..."Do you want to use eminent domain to get those properties?" asks the head of the Auburn Industrial Development Agency, Jim Dacy. "I don't think anybody wants to use eminent domain." But that is the exact threat if the landowners say they don't cower under the pressure from big business in partnership with the city.

"Dacy told Fox News that 'there has to be a good reason' for eminent domain to be used, 'and in this case there is.' He says the property owners are 'being offered more than a fair price for their property,' noting there guidelines call not just for a current appraisal, but a second independent one, and that the offers have been 'generous, above current appraisals.'

"But Ms. Smith-Ward blasts the offers as a 'very insulting price for our property,' and said she was stunned to learn that the city was considering seizing the business she and her husband Doug had sunk their life savings into only to hand their land over to someone else. She told Fox News she always thought eminent domain was 'for power lines, roads, schools, hospitals and not for a private developer.'..."

Before going on, The Lemming points out that "power lines, roads, schools, hospitals" are, for the most part, built by privately-owned firms. And there are privately-owned and operated schools and hospitals. Moving along.
Being Insulted Doesn't Make Something 'Unfair'
About the "very insulting price" - I don't know what that price was, or what the real estate market is like in Auburn, New York. I was reminded of a vaguely-parallel situation in the town I live in.

Someone (I've got to be a little vague - this is a small town, and increasingly net-savvy) put a great deal of time and effort - and money - into fixing up a small house. Then they put it up for sale. It's a nice little place, in a fairly good location.

It didn't sell. For a long, long time. I don't doubt that the price they were asking was "fair," in the sense of reflecting the amount of money they sunk in remodeling the place. But that "fair" price was 'way, 'way above what anybody in this town would pay for a house and lot that size.

There's "fair," and there's paying attention to what a property is actually worth. Those aren't always the same thing.

The Lemming's mentioned that things aren't always simple, right?

The Lemming Doesn't Know

Maybe it's reasonable to seize private property and hand it over to another private entity, so that a hotel conference center can be built in a good location. Those things can draw in a whole lot of people - and generate business for retailers and vendors who aren't directly involved in the hotel business.

But what about 'the masses?' The hotel, and the businesses that will profit from the hotel's being there hire people and help pay for street work. That's an even more indirect benefit to the ordinary citizen in Auburn.

All of which assumes that the hotel actually gets built.

Things don't always go as planned. For example, "...five years ago the United States Supreme Court ruled that communities could use the power of eminent domain to help private interests, if the result was for the public good. The case centered on New London, Connecticut, where a neighborhood was razed to make way for a private development that never came.

"The main plaintiff was resident Susette Kelo, whose little pink house was move to another part of town and now stands as a symbol of regular citizens fighting the government's use of eminent domain. The blocks that were torn down remain largely empty to this day, save for the overgrown weeds and wild cats that roam the desolate area. The city's plans fell through. 'In the wake of Kelo, we have learned about this abuse of power,' notes Christina Walsh of the Institute for Justice in Washington, D.C., which has advised the Wards...."

The Lemming is as sentimental about little pink houses as the next fellow. There's a place up the street - but I am not going off on another tangent.

There's a photo of that pink house, in The New York Times, along with a sort of follow-up piece:It's a cute-looking house, it's pink, and there's some interesting background in the text.

But I still don't know enough to have a firm opinion on whether or not the New London case was "fair." I feel that it smells like a dead muskrat: but that's emotion, not facts.

Apathy is Rampant, but Who Cares?

I've discussed why this blog is called Apathetic Lemming of the North before. Quoting myself, briefly: "...Apathy, of course, was anathema to the anguished campus activists of the sixties and seventies. The cultural pressure to care: deeply, passionately, hysterically, led to the slogan 'Apathy is Rampant, But Who Cares?' I still treasure the sight of those words, emblazoned upon a bumper sticker...." (September 9, 2007)

The Lemming is - to put it mildly - not happy about the latest high-profile "eminent domain" SNAFU. The New London, Connecticut, case apparently prodded 43 state legislatures into upgrading their states' laws. That may be a good thing.

The Auburn, New York, case may jolt folks in responsible positions into action again. Which may or may not be a good thing.

I remember the time, about a half-century back, when the Interstate system was being built. "Eminent domain" was used, wholesale, to buy up neighborhoods and farmland. Quite a few people weren't happy about that. Including me. The Twin Cities (Minneapolis-St. Paul to non-Minnesotans) lost at least one of its more colorful locales in the interests of Progress.

And a fair number of farmers had to abandon land that they owned, which is now - in some cases - over a dozen miles away, thanks to widely-spaced overpasses. Some of those little triangular divots weren't particularly easy to sell.

"Fair?" Maybe. The Interstate system made (relatively) safe, (fairly) economical (moderately) high-speed transportation across America possible. That wouldn't have happened with the patchwork of local and regional road networks we had, coming into the 20th century. On the other hand, there's that little neighborhood that I'll never see again.

As nearly as I can tell, reconstructing childhood memories and consulting what I got from superficial research, the site where the "seven corners" intersection was is now under what locals called "the spaghetti bowl" a few decades back. You can see why, in this satellite photo:

View Larger Map

Do I think that the Interstate project was bad, because I'm sad at the loss of "seven corners?" No, the Lemming has a big ego - but not that big.

Do I think that "eminent domain" was handled perfectly during the seizure of land for the Interstates? No: don't be silly. Human beings were involved. We don't do "perfect."

Never Mind the Hotel and Dog Grooming Business: What About Lint?!

Tomorrow is the 40th Earth Day. As the Lemming has said before, I remember the first one. It was groovy. I felt groovy about it.

Which brings up a sinister silence on the subject of lint.

Why, one may ask, does FOXNews ignore: IGNORE! the lint impact of this proposed hotel convention center? Is it ignorance?! Or a CONSPIRACY?!!!

Surely they are not ignorant of the amount of lint generated by hotels!!!

How DARE they seek to undermine this Great Effort to provide Auburn - and the masses throughout New York State - with pounds, no: TONS of LINT!!!!

Recyclable lint! Sustainable lint! Lint for the masses! Lint enough to provide hand-made paper and Halloween masks for generations yet unborn!

Arise, People of New York! Arise! Fight for your lint!

These days, I'd better make this disclaimer:
    • About the lint
    • And the conspiracy
      • I don't even think Elvis was involved
        • Talk about being close-minded!
Eminent domain? That I think is a serious concern. So is lint, in its own way.

More, about lint:Related posts:


Brigid said...

Oh dear. On a number of levels.

"The Supreme Court is has"

"a long dime ago."

"Auburn's civic leaders are commies, or fifth columnists bend on"

"Oddly, at least one of the people involved in the city hall side of the Auburn, New York, case don't fit"

"that will profit form the hotel's being"

"Do think that"

Just a question, are you feeling okay?

The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

Brian, aka Aluwir, aka Norski said...



I rather like "a long dime ago." But I fixed it anyway.

Now, "am I feeling okay?" Well, it's nothing serious: but no, not entirely. A bit more sleep would help. And I think I've got some sort of bug. Or maybe it's allergies.

Whatever the case: I've been through worse. 'No problem.'

Brian, aka Aluwir, aka Norski said...


Oh, and: Thanks!

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