This week’s “Daily Journal” guest columnist is Daren Bakst, Legal and Regulatory Policy Analyst for the John Locke Foundation.
The state Senate overwhelmingly thought dirt deserved greater protections than humans. Now the House will get its chance to decide whether humans should be treated worse than dirt.
In May, the Senate passed a bill (Senate Bill 600) that would require the government to prove that prior to seizing private property encumbered by conservation easements, there is “no prudent and feasible alternative to condemnation of the property.” A jury would review whether the government had proved its case.
A conservation easement is a restriction on property that limits development. It is designed to protect the natural environment, such as trees and dirt. To make sure these conservation easements are not violated and the dirt will remain untouched, the Senate passed S.B. 600.
The sad thing is humans wouldn’t get the same protection that a ficus would get. Under current law, the government can seize all private property regardless of whether there are alternatives to using eminent domain. If the government could easily avoid forcing a family from their home, it could ignore this fact and still seize the property.
Under S.B. 600, while the dirt’s interests would be protected, a human’s interest in protecting one’s home, business, or church wouldn’t be protected.
The Senate bill also undermines property rights by allowing the conservation easement holder to challenge whether private property could be seized by eminent domain. The easement holder likely isn’t the property owner. Only the conservation easement holder, not the property owner, could require the government to prove that no alternative existed to seizing property.
If a property owner would like the government to seize the property, an easement holder could block the seizure. The easement holder’s rights would actually trump the rights of the property owner.
The House, which now is considering S.B. 600, should amend the bill to treat North Carolinians as well as a mushroom. As I’ve argued for years, the government should always be required to show that no feasible alternative exists to seizing someone’s property.
A person’s home truly is his castle and in many instances the place where one’s family has lived for generations. When the government seizes a family home, it is taking more than bricks and mortar — it is taking away a family’s history. The last time I checked, humans don’t have family shrubs or family weeds.
The House can fix S.B. 600 and require that the government must show that there’s no prudent and feasible alternative to seizing someone’s home or other property that isn’t encumbered by a conservation easement. The property owner, not the easement holder, should be the one who triggers a jury review of the taking.
The government also should be required, when approaching a property owner regarding the purchase of private property, to notify the property owner that in the event that eminent domain is considered, the government must first seek out alternatives to using eminent domain.
If the House can’t make these simple and noncontroversial changes, then what hope is there for much-needed eminent domain reform, such as a constitutional amendment that prohibits the government from seizing private property for private uses such as economic development?
If the legislature won’t make these changes, the message it is sending is loud and clear. Lawmakers care more about mud than they care about you. They care more about poison oak than the person who loses a home because of eminent domain.
The government often alleges that eminent domain is used as a last resort. Of course, this is laughable. However, if this is true, there should be no opposition to requiring that alternatives be sought prior to seizing private property.
Citizens need to hold their legislators accountable. They should ask their senators why they felt dandelions deserved more protection than their homes. They should call upon House members to correct this absurdity in S.B. 600 and provide protections for all property owners.
By creating a blanket requirement that the government must prove alternatives exist before seizing any private property, there will be better protection for homes, businesses, and even conservation easements. This is one instance when the legislature should treat us like dirt.