Property rights are one of the main things governments are established to protect -- in fact, Mr. Jefferson once quite publicly warned the king that “Whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it.”
Whereupon, they did.
Perhaps it was with that unsettling precedent in mind that many municipalities this summer responded to the court’s despicable abrogation of property rights not by going on wholesale seize-a-thons, but rather with a more muted “Uh-oh, folks seem to have noticed this one. Maybe we’d better tread a little more carefully, here.”
Everywhere but in Reno, Nevada, that is.
No, up in Reno, Washoe County officials continue to actively hold the sledgehammer threat of seizure over the heads of the owners of the sprawling Ballardini Ranch, making the ongoing “negotiations” over the price at which the legal owners are willing to sell something more akin to the kind of “negotiation” that goes on between unarmed marks and their armed assailants during a strong-arm robbery.
And what kind of “public use” does the county claim it needs this land for, that might require an eminent domain property seizure? Highway going through? Flood control project? A really big firehouse and police station?
No, Washoe county wants to “condemn the 1,019-acre ranch to preserve it as open space and a gateway to the Sierra Nevada foothills,” The Associated Press reports.
On the other hand, Evans Creek LLC, the Minnesota-based company that owns the scenic land, says it bought the property to develop it by building houses, and that Washoe County is illegally denying its property rights to develop the land in this otherwise legal manner.
A jury trial is currently set for May 1.
Is preserving this land as a park a nice idea? Perhaps -- though “I drove up housing prices by creating a shortage of developable land!” isn’t usually the kind of slogan you usually hear politicians announcing over loudspeakers at election time.
The market provides an easy solution, though. Anyone who wants to create a thousand-acre park is free to buy the land at the current asking price .... and then pay the property taxes on it, in perpetuity.
Of course, to raise enough money to pay the taxes, the owners might have to start selling some off as housing lots. But altering that equation is within the purview of the Washoe County Commission, as well: Simply repeal the property tax.
Instead, “Washoe County and owners of the sprawling Ballardini Ranch in southwest Reno are millions of dollars apart on the value of the land,” so “the condemnation case (is) moving toward court next spring,” The AP reports.
Frank Thompson, an attorney representing Evans Creek, responded last week by filing a counterclaim seeking $91 million in damages.
“This is really a situation where Washoe County has prevented the owner from developing this property at a time when the Truckee Meadows is experiencing the greatest real estate boom in its history,” Thompson said.
“The county is trying to steal the property for a fraction of its value and it’s all kind of blowing up in their face.”
America is a great and prosperous land because private entrepreneurs are able to gather up capital and invest it -- at their own risk -- in hopes of making a profit. That’s what Evans Creek did.
The great French economist Frederic Bastiat wrote an essay on “What is seen and what is not seen.” Should Washoe County succeed here, and should property values then begin to fall because the next 1,000-acre parcel draws less interest, with bidders asking themselves “Why bother? Some politician will just condemn it and seize it and pay us pennies,” will the politicians admit the change is their fault?
Of course not. They’ll blame it all on “the inherent instability of the capitalist system,” and use it as justification for some new form of strong-arm price fixing.
It was Madison, author of the Constitution, who warned us, “It is proper to take alarm at the first experiment on our liberties. We hold this prudent jealousy to be the first duty of citizens and one of the noblest characteristics of the late Revolution. The freemen of America did not wait till usurped power had strengthened itself by exercise and entangled the question in precedents. They saw all the consequences in the principle, and they avoided the consequences by denying the principle.”
The fourth president then presciently warned: “There are more instances of the abridgement of the freedom of the people by the gradual and silent encroachment of those in power, than by violent and sudden usurpation.”
Sure, the trees are pretty. But Washoe voters must tell their servants to pay the asking price, or else approve the houses.