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The right and left of property rights
Seattle Times staff columnist
The automatic, Seattle-based opposition to a property-rights initiative lingers as a city-centric view of the rural land everyone values, including those who actually own it.
It's easy to get worked up about the rise of property rights, seen as an anti-government movement springing up nationally — and locally through a nutty state like Oregon. There, Measure 37 emerged intact from a state Supreme Court challenge, to the fears of central planners and government officials. It had passed easily at the polls and quickly showed up on the horizon for imitation in Washington. Washington's property-rights initiative is backed by the highly political Farm Bureau and has an awfully good chance of meeting the required signatures to be on the ballot in November.
In general, I think the initiative is a bad idea. It is another fractionalizing force in a state bitterly divided along rural-urban and political lines. But it is at best foolhardy to think this voter initiative does not rise from broad disparities in the way urbanization has treated the land, and how a family can lose an inheritance with the stroke of a planner's pen.
A few weeks ago, I sat over lunch with five farmers — two, a father and son in farming — who are watching Pierce County turn from farm to suburb. Some families have been on the land for nearly 100 years. They say they can make a go of it raising lettuce and other row crops, especially selling to Fred Meyer, the retailer that buys mostly local produce. At the same time, their land is locked into rural use, denying them higher land values. In one case, a farm is 60 feet — a two-lane road away — from a housing development that went for multiple thousands of dollars an acre because of rezoning.
These eccentricities of the law are passed over as regrettable outcomes of proper land management by critics of the property-rights initiative. Yet, to hear a farmer talk, it would be nice if some of those eccentricities also fell on politicians, college professors and land-use planners.
That's why I think there has to be some common ground beyond the lettuce fields. Owners of a few acres of timber or row crops have to feel their land is not subject to whimsy in the form of someone else's land values. And the rest of us, we who grow rhodies instead of yields per acre, should understand it's not enough just to say we are going to defend the family farm and then treat the farmers as penal labor, prisoners of their land.
Before everyone rises and yells "Kelo!" at me, let's deal with the Supreme Court and the law of the land. The U.S. Supreme Court in a famous case — Kelo v. New London, now used as a war cry — held that government, even at the behest of private developers, could condemn land for subsequent development.
Washington's Attorney General Rob McKenna and others have pointed out the ruling has no application here because the state constitution prohibits such land transactions. The Kelo case stirs the property-rights bonfire, but should not have the candlepower of a night light in Washington.
Instead, the debate I'd like to see is how five farmers in Pierce County can be asked to take a bullet for the rest of us. If they are instructed by land-use regulations that their land is immune from the rising value for houses and roads, then how should they be compensated? The law doesn't set a market price for lettuce locally grown, or put a value on their time in the fields.
Saying we are going to save the family farm from development isn't enough. It doesn't walk the fields and ask the price of seed or prevent the strange inequities that emerge from pricey housing sitting across the road from artificially undervalued dirt.
James F. Vesely's column appears Sunday on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is: email@example.com
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