Letters to the Editor week of 5-27-10



 To the Editor:

To respond to last week’s “A Stone’s Throw” column, I would also like to tell a cautionary story. Mine is not the complete work of twisted fiction that I read last Thursday. This is an absolutely true account that does not need to manufacture fear or smear the characters of the people involved in order to invent credibility.

A long time ago, in a town far, far away the local government officials, working with businesses there, devised an amazing and creative plan to revitalize one of its business districts. This project would bring more visitors into the district and increase revenue, which had been falling off in recent years. 

All the businesses, large and small, were excited by the sheer innovative genius of the project, the focal point of which was an artistic endeavor never before seen. They were delighted with the prospect of increased visitors, and the financial benefits for those businesses, many of which were small shops. The local media showed footage of the smiling faces of those small shop owners.

 Then the price was revealed. The town agreed to spend $6.4 million and use eminent domain to acquire land for a parking garage to accommodate the expected increase in visitors.

Armed with the Legislature’s assurance that redevelopment is a “public use,” the city began acquiring property. The courts’ interpretation of “public use” had grown beyond roads, utilities, government buildings and the like as local governments sought to clear slums with eminent domain. Prior to the revitalization project, the town had used eminent domain for redevelopment 143 times without a single lawsuit.

A widow owned a prime piece of real estate filled with small shops, from whom she made an income of $60,000 a year. The property, which she and her family valued at $7 million, was seized. They were offered $380,000 for the land, which was later raised to $480,000. Both offers were refused and the real estate was seized anyway.

The town ordered the small businesses to move and the buildings were bulldozed. Because of the rapidly rising real estate market, many of those shops could not afford rent anywhere else and were forced to close. Their owners were no longer smiling as they came to the realization that the true beneficiaries of the project were the ten big companies who had formed a corporation together for this venture.

The family who owned the land took their case to court. The ensuing 11-year legal battle delayed any compensation for the land and depleted the widow’s savings. Gone was the rental income. Because the case was still in court, even the settlement money originally offered through the eminent domain process was withheld.

The case gained notoriety and was declared by a Washington, D.C. public interest firm to be among the top 10 abuses of eminent domain nationwide. It even went to the U.S. Supreme Court, who declined to hear it.

The costs continued to mount. Nearly twenty years later the cost of the parking garage stood at $17.5 million. The company formed to acquire the garage began reimbursement payments to the town for the $11.1 million excess spent above the amount budgeted for it. According to a debt calculator, the debt will take about 26 years to repay.

The year the above tale began was 1993. The project was called The Fremont Street Experience, the “town”, Las Vegas. The city’s repayment for expenses finally began in January of this year, 2010.

The bad publicity generated by this case forced Las Vegas to abandon eminent domain in situations in which land is transferred from one private party to another, even in the name of redevelopment.

Until I moved to this area in 1996, I watched this set of events unfold from my home in Las Vegas. Perhaps this makes clear my alarm over the comprehensive plan, and my determination to oppose it. Had the comprehensive plan been put into place, this scenario could have been reenacted, Switzerland County style, with my own land and that of many other people here. I’ve looked at my land as my retirement fund, a safe way to invest my money. Everything I’ve worked for my entire adult life could have been seized at a low value artificially created by the plan and its accompanying enforcement codes.

Now you should understand why my wife and I have been relentless in our efforts to shed light on this project. We have seen how entities can and do exploit eminent domain laws under the claim of “public use” as an excuse to steal property from individuals, citing the benefits to the community overall. The comprehensive plan was both a license to steal and the blueprint of how and where it could be committed. Just because money is thrown to a victim does not make the parties snatching their homes and land away against their wishes any the less thieves.

 Doug Weber

Switzerland County Resident

County landfill

To the Editor:

My intention this week was just to write about the latest planning commission meeting, and add my own perspective as I have done in past letters. Then I read “A Stone’s Throw”-twice-and wondered if one had been thrown at me. Sure felt like it. I hope not, because when a stone is thrown at me, my instinct is to throw it right back. I’ve met Mike Cooney, worked alongside him once or twice, and have been out to his lovely place with its spectacular river view. I liked and respected him, have enjoyed most of his columns, and Shadow’s pieces even more. His column last week addressed the rescinding process of the 2008 Comprehensive Plan. To make his point he used the fictitious scenario of a “self-started rumor” of Rumpke taking notes about those citizens who demanded Switzerland County rescind the Comprehensive Plan. His “rumor” went on to say “Rumpke representatives will begin looking for 200 or more acres of land in Switzerland County for building the ‘new Rumpke Mountain'”. He implied that the 2008 Comprehensive Plan and its zoning and enforcement laws would have protected us from this.

Interesting that he chose the subject of landfills to convey his opinion.

Although harder to find, I prefer truth to rumor, and I like illustrating my points with facts. On page 101 of the nearly deceased Comprehensive Plan (which I had sincerely hoped to never have to refer to again) is a map of Switzerland County titled “Possible Landfill Locations”. Unless I have misread the map, my little farm, whose views I treasure every bit as much as Mike does his, is designated as part of a huge possible landfill site. Rather than protecting Switzerland County from becoming a dump, the 2008 Plan directly mapped out much of the center of it for that specific purpose.

Wait! (You’ll have to imagine the light bulb above my head.)

Following the “rumor” scenario, is it being suggested that Dr. Frankel is really the secret Rumpke representative/dump site scout? He never approached me with this nefarious scheme. The only Rumpke reps I have ever met were trash collectors, when they still provided service on my road. To whom did he present his Plan? If stones must be thrown, I suggest that they be aimed at those who would have profited from the 2008 Plan, exceptionally few of whom would have been Switzerland County residents. 

My own greatest issue with the nearly departed 2008 Plan has always been about the overall objectives, particularly the urbanization strategy, and how it was to be implemented. Someone cast his greedy eyes on my land, noted its prime value, marked it on several maps for various potential businesses uses, and decided to restrict my right to build on it for my own enjoyment, so that it could be seized more cheaply. Any elementary school age child who has played the board game Monopoly can tell you how raw land versus real estate with structures affects its value. 

Until I became aware of the ramifications of the 2008 Plan and how it would hurt me, I was content to leave it in the hands of our county officials. The past few months I have spent rectifying that judgment error. If opposing what I feel was a destructive piece of local legislation to protect my home and my rights brands me a dissident, so be it. If I am smiling at meetings, it is in relief, not victory. Personally, I don’t consider myself worthy of the status of dissident, among the ranks of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Mahatma Ghandi and other giants who fought to protect civil rights. I see myself as just an individual who wants to preserve my right to enjoy the home for which my husband and I have worked so long and hard.

In search of facts, rather than rumor, I have been attending every meeting possible, both county, and planning and zoning. Since, like the planning commission, I have a difficult time recalling exact dialogue, I have been taking notes, and recording with my little digital recorder. This is to keep accurate accounting of what has been said and avoid the confusion and forgetfulness I’ve witnessed among the officials.

At the May 19th meeting, the planning commissioners passed the motion to approve the repeal of the 2008 Comprehensive Plan, voting 3-2. Now the plan goes back before the next county commissioners’ meeting for what I believe to be the final vote down. (Monday, June 7th, 5 p.m. at the courthouse)

Next was discussed the formation of a Citizens Advisory Committee to engage the community in the creation of a new county plan. Nothing has been determined about the CAC yet, although both boards stressed that the committee be composed of a diverse group representing the entire county population. The participating public expressed concern that the planning and zoning commissions should not choose the CAC members, to ensure that the CAC would not be their puppets. There was active conversation between the commission and the audience about the CAC’s role, which, as I understand it, will be review the 1996 and 2008 plans, to identify areas of them that might be of concern, and to listen to comments and suggestions from county residents, filtering, and presenting them to the Planning Board at meetings. I suggested that in addition to the legally worded public notice, that whatever new plan is created should be presented in clear, simple layman’s terms, and made available through several public sources so that everyone interested can read and understand it before it goes to a vote.

To quote my own words from the first letter I wrote on this topic: “We are independent souls, who do not want invasive government codes that go far beyond sensible regulations that deal with hazards and pollution, to ordinances that violate our civil rights, and dictate how we live in our homes and on our land.” I definitely agree with the necessity of regulations that protect and respect the people of our community. 

At the risk of losing my dissident label, I am seriously considering applying for a position on the CAC. Maybe I lack the necessary qualifications, having only a high school diploma, and I confess, a cap on one of my teeth, yet, still having a baby tooth, is that a draw? OK, Frankel funny aside, I have no real skills or useful career background, and I’m a “boat person” to boot. I fell in love with Switzerland County long ago, and want to see it grow in directions that fit it and its diverse residents. If I am wanted for this job, I promise to learn all that I can to do my best; if not, I will offer my sincere support and ideas to help create a good plan for the people who have so accepted me here.

Meanwhile, let Shadow write for “A Stone’s Throw”. He’s nicer and has a better sense of who his friends are.

 Traci Weber

Switzerland County Resident

Sensible zoning

To the Editor:

I enjoyed Mike Cooney’s recent column, a “tongue in cheek” essay on the dangers of not passing the 2008 Switzerland County comprehensive plan. It was well written and humorous, a good read. It was also good to hear from the person who actually supported the plan. We were told that this plan was “citizen initiated” by Dr. Frankel. Now we know who the “citizen” is.

Yet there are some flaws in Mr. Cooney’s article which need to be addressed. The first logical error is the employment of the equivocation fallacy. Mr. Cooney commits this fallacy when he tries to conflate “Zoning and enforcement” with “Comprehensive Planning”. It has been stated and appears to be generally accepted by some, that if you have zoning and enforcement you must also have a comprehensive plan. Yet Mr. Cooney doesn’t attempt to make this case, he merely assumes the two are synonymous. 

The second logical error is the “either or fallacy”. Is it possible to enact sensible zoning and regulation which would protect our county from an invading mountain of trash brought to us by the evil capitalists at Rumpke, without a sweeping private property encroaching comprehensive plan? Again, Mr. Cooney assumes that this onerous comprehensive plan must be in place or the “sky will fall” down around us, all conveniently devoid of any facts to support the notion.

I think the vast majority of Switzerland county residents would not object to reasonable land use planning and enforcement with the following conditions:

1) Any plan must be governed by the United States Constitution

2) Any enacted plan must include a prohibition against the taking of private property for a public purpose without due process and just compensation;

3) The purpose of land use planning and zoning is to promote public safety and welfare, not to regulate the legitimate use of private property;

4) While permits may be needed for issues related to construction of a dwelling, septic, water, etc., those permits shall not be approved or denied for arbitrary reasons;

5) In order to preserve agriculture land uses, landowners may have to use their private property for additional economic uses other than the cultivation of crops, in order for those agricultural uses to be sustainable; and

6) The neighbors should have a strong voice in the outcome of controversial land use decisions but this voice in the use of the neighbor’s property should be weighed as “harm” not just “personal choice.”

The above six conditions were taken from a resolution of 700 Houston County Minnesota residents who have been fighting their comprehensive plan which has been was used by authorities to restrict property rights. After several years of abuse the private citizens rose up and sued the county government citing numerous examples of private property violations. There are many such stories across the United States like this one in Houston County, Minnesota. Unlike the “Mountain” coming to Switzerland County fable, these are not rumors, they are not funny, they are not a reckless fear mongering, rather they represent an all too real threat to law abiding citizens of our county.

Dan Christopher


Buy local

To the Editor:

I recently saw an ad in last Thursday’s newspaper which stated that the Switzerland County Economic Development Corporation was having a public forum. They were wanting opinions and ideas as to how to bring more jobs and economic opportunities to Switzerland County. It just so happens that I personally witnessed an action the same day I read this, and I feel I must voice my thoughts for the sake of every small business owner in the county.

My husband and I are small business owners, and we have been self-employed for the last 12 years in some form. We have lived in Switzerland county for about 10 of those 12 years. I cannot cease to tell you how many times we have witnessed neighbors and townspeople refuse to support local businesses in our county, but instead call upon businesses in other outside areas to do nearly the same job or service. Do those people realize that local Switzerland County people can offer competitive (and often times cheaper) prices, free or lower priced delivery or set-up charges, and comparable (if not better) services? If they stayed within their own county when choosing their services, they could bring more jobs to the county, more tax dollars, and raise the local morale.

I find it truly interesting that neighbors and organizations can pass one another by, and turn their heads, but instead, bestow a job on an outlying area business or service 45 minutes to one hour away, when it could have remained within our county. Is it spite? Jealousy? Ignorance? To top it off, many of these people and organizations ask for donations throughout the year. Should questions be asked before we agree to these endless requests? Have you ever supported or even stepped foot in my business? As words of wisdom, I must declare that our county will be more successful if we can trust, love, and support one another with our business instead of spreading spite and contempt.

Times are hard. There isn’t a day that I don’t work hard and struggle to stay ahead, and most small business owners will say the same. Please remember, a book cannot be read by merely its cover. Instead, it is the vast contents that tell the real story, which are formed by chapters of work, love, success and failure. Things aren’t always as they seem. Open your eyes to the world, and one act of kindness or support for a local business, neighbor, or friend may go an extremely long way in both uniting and strengthening our beautiful county. God speed to those that have supported the many wonderful, hard-working businesses in Switzerland County. Shame on you to the rest!

Shannon Vinson