February 9, 2006
Another Government Taking
Conaway Ranch is a 17,300-acre spread north of Davis, Calif. On
property that sidles up to Interstate 5 and provides a fine view
of the Sacramento skyline, owners grow rice and alfalfa, boast rights
to 50,000 acre-feet of water and extract natural gas. The gray sky
and Sierra runoff are home to countless birds -- ducks, egrets and
hawks -- some of which the owners hunt.
Yolo County wants the land. In 2004, county supervisors voted
to seize the ranch by eminent domain. "We want to keep it
from being developed," explained Supervisor Mike McGowan.
are fighting back, and they're media savvy. In 2005, the U.S.
Supreme Court issued its infamous Kelo decision -- which
supported the seizure by New London, Conn., of taxpayers' waterfront
homes so that the properties could be handed over to private development.
Americans on the left and right were outraged at this expansive
definition of a "public use" taking.
Then-Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote in her dissent: "The
specter of condemnation hangs over all property. Nothing is to
prevent the state from replacing any Motel 6 with a Ritz-Carlton,
any home with a shopping mall or any farm with a factory."
owners -- a group of developers that calls itself the Conaway
Preservation Group and bought the property after Yolo commenced
the eminent-domain action -- are arguing that what Yolo wants
to do is worse than Kelo.
Tovey Giezentanner argues that while Kelo was outrageous
-- for it allowed local governments to seize homes and hand them
over to private developers -- if Yolo wins, it will be the first
time the "government got into the business of trying to run
an existing business." There will be nothing to stop governments
from seizing other profitable businesses -- parking garages, farms,
hotels -- and running them themselves.
"I've got some
news for you," countered McGowan. "After going through
this, it is highly unlikely I will ever do this again." The
political fallout has been no picnic.
bristles at the notion that Yolo wants to go beyond Kelo.
A county buying land to preserve it is "pretty old stuff."
I have to agree on that point.
That doesn't make
the seizure of the ranch a good thing. Steven Anderson, an attorney
with the Institute for Justice, which has been a key player in
fighting eminent-domain abuses, said of this case, "There
may not be a constitutional claim," and the preservation
may be considered a public use, but "that does not mean it
Oh, and there's another
wrinkle. Yolo doesn't plan on using county money to buy the property.
Later this year, a jury will set the value of the ranch. The owners
purchased the ranch for a reported $60 million, but it may be
worth much more. So who pays for it?
The Rumsey Band of
Wintun Indians will put up the front money. The Yolo supes call
this a "handshake deal" -- with no quid-pro-quo for
the tribe. I should note that the Rumsey tribe owns Cache Creek
It all comes does
to: Whom do you trust? The developer owners, who at this point
can't build on any of the land but might be able to build on small
portions in the future, if Yolo politics change?
Or the county, with
McGowan's word that "we have not made any concessions with
the tribe"? McGowan argues that while the Conaway Conservation
Group may act as good stewards now, the minute conservation is
not profitable, the owners will try to build where they can. (Not
that I think that's necessarily a bad thing, but McGowan thinks
it is bad.)
that voters would be foolish to believe this land grab is a "stringless
deal." While the casino grows as a political force in the
county, it will be able to build on some of the land -- and this
is a hot location, not far from the airport and easy access to
I-5. That is, not a bad spot for another casino.
2006 Creators Syndicate