Taking Liberties

  • Cindy Wehling
  • Three Forks, Montana, resident Norma Miller, interrupted while mowing her lawn, listened to Dondero's pitch about stopping the government's use of eminent-domain power to comdemn private property, and then she signed his petition.

    Ray Ring
  • Cindy Wehling
  • Cindy Wehling
  • Cindy Wehling
  • Cindy Wehling
  • Sitting at a picnic table beside the Three Forks Conoco Station, with his clipboard of petitions and an American flag pin on his visor, Eric Dondero animatedly describes his politicking.

    Ray Ring
  • Cindy Wehling
  • Going door-to-door in Three Forks, Montana, Eric Dondero likes to approach people who live in mobile homes, because, he says, they're 'amazed someone is coming to their door to ask them about a political matter.' He gets a signature from the elderly woman in this home.

    Ray Ring
 
The salesmen say ‘yes’ is a vote to stop government from taking your land, but this stealth campaign would do far more than that

 

BOZEMAN, Montana — The first time I talked to Eric Dondero, I called his cell phone, and caught him on a sidewalk in the small town of Three Forks. He was asking people to sign a petition. He convinced one man to sign while I listened. Then he told me enthusiastically about his political work: "I’m full-time, all the time! I try to do a good 10 hours per day … I’m a very ideological person. I’m a proud libertarian."

Dondero was operating as a point man for a campaign that stretches from Arizona to Washington state. I hoped he would allow me into the ground-level operations. "All right," he said, "you want a really good story? Come on out. I’m standing in front of the Conoco store, you can’t miss me. I’m rockin’ here!"

I drove west from Bozeman, through suburban sprawl and 30 miles of farm country, to the confluence of rivers where Three Forks sits. The town only amounts to a few dozen blocks, and it has a random feel, trailer homes mingled with small houses, a looming talc plant, and a fringe of new, pricier subdivisions mysteriously growing on former wheat fields.

Dondero was hanging around a gas-station store on the not-too-busy main street. Stocky but not imposing, he was dressed to blend in with the Three Forks community (trimmed hair and mustache, jeans and work boots, American flag pin) as well as for a long day under the hot May sun (visor, sunglasses, long-sleeved shirt). Petitions were stacked on his clipboard, and even as I approached, he persuaded another passerby to sign. "You’re a great American! I appreciate it!" he told the guy.

We shook hands, and Dondero grinned, animated and immediately likable. I stepped back and watched him work. Locals wheeled their pickup trucks into the parking spaces around the Conoco, and as they walked into the store, Dondero asked them politely, "How are you doing (ma’am or sir)? Are you a registered voter?"

He seemed like an ordinary concerned citizen, not a part of an orchestrated, multistate campaign. But the libertarian movement he belongs to — broader and more powerful than the anemic Libertarian Party — has a growing reach in American politics. The movement’s mission is to maximize individual freedom by limiting government power in everything from taxes to judges’ rulings. One of its national leaders, Grover Norquist, has said that he wants to reduce government "to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub."

In this campaign, which is playing out in six Western states, the libertarians mostly want to "reform eminent domain" — or at least that’s what they say.

Governments at all levels invoke eminent domain on occasion to condemn property and force the owners to accept a buyout to make room for new roads, electricity lines, urban renewal and other projects that benefit the public. Recently, however, eminent domain has been the target of public outrage, thanks to a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling known as the Kelo case. The high court held that the city of New London, Conn., could exercise eminent domain to condemn the homes of Susette Kelo and six other holdouts, to make room for a global pharmaceutical company’s 100-acre manufacturing complex. Since then, more than 30 legislatures have either passed or considered laws limiting eminent domain, and ballot initiatives have sprung up from Alaska to South Carolina.

Dondero carried a knee-high posterboard that said simply: "Protect Private Property Rights … Citizens Fighting Eminent Domain Abuse." Each time he made the pitch, he began, "This is a statewide petition to protect our property rights. To keep that new eminent domain law from coming to Montana and taking our homes away. … I know you saw this on Fox News, or CNN. …" He often referred to the Kelo case: "New London, Conn., they condemned this little old lady’s property to take it away."

But the patriotic sales pitch hides something else entirely. National libertarian groups are not just funneling big bucks into this campaign to protect a few property owners from eminent domain. They have their sights set on something much bigger — laying waste to land-use regulations used by state and local governments to protect the landscape, the environment and neighborhoods. Their goal has received little attention, partly because of its stealth mode. But the fact that the libertarians just might pull it off makes the campaign the hottest political story in the West this year.

I began to see the pattern in April, during a conversation with John Echeverria, head of the Environmental Law and Policy Institute at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Echeverria called it "eminent domain hysteria."

"The Kelo case is presented as a caricature in the news," Echeverria said. "Most people don’t understand the valuable development (that eminent domain) can help generate, and how, if it’s fairly conducted, it can produce entirely fair, even highly favorable outcomes, for affected property owners — they’re paid market value or well above." We talked about some of the horror stories, where governments use eminent domain in questionable ways. But those are few and far between. What’s really going on, Echeverria said, is that, "The property-rights advocates have exploited Kelo to advance a broader anti-government agenda."

BMoritsch
BMoritsch
Jul 24, 2006 03:37 PM

THANK YOU for this article. I consider myself reasonably well read, but had no idea of the significance of these propositions. Everyone in the western states needs to read this article.

DJGulliford
DJGulliford
Jul 25, 2006 02:47 PM

Major kudos to both the author and HCN. This is definitely Pulitzer material, I'm afraid.

nordell
nordell
Jul 26, 2006 01:07 PM

One response to the takings movement might be to pass legislation allowing neighbors to sue developers for reductions in their own property values, or recreationists to sue them for lost value of amenities.

tslid
tslid
Jul 26, 2006 01:07 PM

I know you guys are a left wing publication and think that Government has all the answers but I can tell you all these propositions are the direct result of people being sick and tired of having their property rights taken. Blaine County Idaho's 2025 is an example of an out of control County Commission. If you don't like these measures you only need to look in the mirror as it was the Kelo decision led by the liberals on the US Supreme Court that got the ball rolling. Rhenquist, Scalia and Thomas all voted against. Also this article is pure propoganda. These sinister Libertarians who can never seem to get a percent or two of the vote have somehow hyptonized Oregon voters (Hardly a bastion of conservatism) and pulled the wool out from under everyone? Huhhhh?? All of these measures are going to pass and pass big. Prop 2 in Idaho is a big winner. I think Government ctually works best with a broken leg.

tslid
tslid
Jul 26, 2006 01:07 PM

I know you guys are a left wing publication and think that Government has all the answers but I can tell you all these propositions are the direct result of people being sick and tired of having their property rights taken. Blaine County Idaho's 2025 is an example of an out of control County Commission.

If you don't like these measures you only need to look in the mirror as it was the Kelo decision led by the liberals on the US Supreme Court that got the ball rolling. Rhenquist, Scalia and Thomas all voted against.

Also this article is pure propoganda. These sinister Libertarians who can never seem to get a percent or two of the vote have somehow hyptonized Oregon voters (Hardly a bastion of conservatism) and pulled the wool out from under everyone? Huhhhh??

All of these measures are going to pass and pass big. Prop 2 in Idaho is a big winner.

Personally I think Government actually works best with a broken leg.

PaulBx1
PaulBx1
Jul 26, 2006 01:08 PM

This article is completely overblown. Good old-fashioned muckraking! I live in Oregon. I also have filed and won a Measure 37 claim, so I have some experience with this. The sky is not falling, folks. Life in Oregon goes on as before, for 99% of the people. No, everyone is not finding a trailer park or gravel pit appearing next door. Think about it; the market simply would not support it. How many gravel pits does the world need? What really happened in Oregon, ground zero for land-use planning, is that frustration with planners built and built until people couldn't take it any more. They want to live their own lives, not have planners run them. That is why there are so many claims right now; there was a "backlog of frustration". I had a 93 acre place; it was a dairy farm decades ago but now grows mostly weeds. I wanted to sell half of it to my neighbor, who has a tree farm. State wouldn't let me, because "farmland" can't be taken below 80 acres. Is that a crock, or what? No development was involved here, just a transfer from one neighbor to another. Measure 37 let me do it. Freedom is scary, if you are not used to it. But it gets more enjoyable as you go along, and the alternative is nothing to wish for. Don't be afraid of the notion of having more control of YOUR property. Oh, that 1% who are who are worse off due to Measure 37? The planners. They sure don't like having fetters on their ability to tell you what to do. Tough luck.

jdombrow
jdombrow
Jul 27, 2006 12:02 PM

New Mexicans are not exempt from this movement. Today's NM Business Weekly notes that the first meeting of the Governor's Task Force on the Responsible Use of Eminent Domain is scheduled for 3 p.m. tomorrow at the Rodey Law Firm, 201 Third Street NW, Suite 2200 in Albuquerque. The meeting is open to the public, but space is limited. This task force "will recommend ways for New Mexico to prevent or prohibit abusive condemnation practices that could result because of the ruling in June 2005 by the U.S. Supreme Court in Kelo v. City of New London (Conn.)."

ericdondero
ericdondero
Jul 27, 2006 12:02 PM

Thanks Ray, That was a very fair and balanced article. You portrayed our meetings, accurately, and even quite colorfully. I hope we meet again some day, for coffee or beers. Not in Leftist Bozeman, but in some safer nearby small-town. How'se the Cafe/Restaurant in nearby Willow Creek (pop. 62) grab ya? (Editors: Below for Comment section only.) As for the gentleman who used the phrase "Sinister Libertarians" in the Comment section, I would remind you Sir that our Founding Fathers were libertarians, just about every one of them. Were they "Sinister" too? Not too mention a great many elected Republicans these days, like Congressmen Ron Paul of Texas, Jeff Flake of Arizona, Butch Otter of Idaho, and Dana Rohrabacher of California, plus over 20 elected Republican legislators in the Nation including Senator Jerry O'Neil of Kallispell, MT. Not all libertarians are affiliated with the Libertarian Party, and get 1 to 2% of the vote in elections. The majority of libertarians these days are active in the GOP and actually win elections. We are anything but "Sinister," rather out-front contributing and dedicated members of local communities. For a List of nationwide elected libertarians, and libertarian celebrities like Dennis Miller, Clint Eastwood, and Larry Elder check out: www.mainstreamlibertarian.com.

presidentnext
presidentnext
Jul 28, 2006 10:53 AM

to read Dondero's discussions with other Libertarians about who the party should nomnate for president in 2008, check out groups.yahoo.com/group/Libertarian2008

freepeople
freepeople
Jul 31, 2006 09:31 AM

You don't like Libertarians? Is it because they take votes away from the Democrats? Is it because you see in hindsight that the Measure 37 supporters "Lied to us"? You have a gaggle of people whose land and lifestyles are going to be trashed because their neighbors are excercising their rights to use their land in their own way? Your clear anti-freedom attitude seems to say that it's all someone else's fault, that right-thinking voters/citizens in Oregon were hoodwinked by coached-up little old ladies and scandalous, signature-buying ballot measure hawks (really just slick sales people) in the pockets of fat cat special interests.

I don't claim loyalty to any political party. I support freedom. America is about freedom. Yyou can probably quote most or all of our constitutional rights. I live in Redmond, OR, where growth is rampant, and money is being made hand over fist as our city explodes outward. Highway 97 is being rerouted and housing is going up literally everywhere at a record pace. Of course, you know this. Your article titled 'Stealth Campaigns Threaten Democracy' is in one of our local free papers, The Redmond Weekly Current.

Your final sentence, the one that you are taught to write in journalism school that hits hardest and is taken with the reader when the paper is closed, has me curious. You state that Libertarian ideas are essentially responsible for "lousy government". You make no statement of any other party's relationship with or culpability for our current governmental failures. Our current two-party system is a ridiculous mess. Money obviously buys elections. People with great character and ideas stay away from politics because politicians are held in the public's consciousness with more contempt than just about any other 'profession'. Them that has the gold makes the rules, and the rules favor the rich, Ray. Of course you know that. Yet you state with serious conviction that the Libertarians and their sneaky ways are the cause of 'lousy government'. How would you get your two cents into a political debate if your weren't allowed to be on the stage with the candidates from the BIG TWO? In Oregon, that's the way it is. Libertarians and Greens and anyone else outside of the BIG TWO are allowed to be on the ballot, to put themselves into the published voter's guides, and generally do the campaign trail thing until it comes time to televise or otherwise broadcast debates. Then, they are courteously asked to step aside so the BIG BOYS can get about bashing each other. That's really classy.

Don't tell me about "lousy government", Ray. The State of Oregon has recently stepped in to 'help' with the highway 97 reroute plans and have added at least a year to the completion date. I live withcrappy government activities every day, and the Libertarians haven't been allowed to have much of anything to do with it but putting measures on the ballot in effort to bring us some more freedom. If your downtrodden and bedraggled doctor/landowner admits to being naive and not reading the fine print in the ballot measure, he reaps what he sews. Living in America is for grownups. Excuses don't often fly. Dealing with our government is not for the squeamish unless you like being a doormat.

Signing petitions for ballot measures or getting a church built or holding a school bazaar are similar to tastes in TV or Radio programming or Movies or Music: IF YOU DON'T LIKE IT, DON'T WATCH!! CHANGE THE CHANNEL! LEAVE IT IN THE STORE! I don't see any signature-gatherers pulling a half-nelson on Post Office patrons or Wal-Mart customers or tackling people cutting their grass to get them to sign. I've seen many, many people just tell those signature people "no thanks" or get in their faces to argue or start a dialogue. We all have the right to ask gatherers the name of the company that signs their checks and determine if our own values match the petition thrust in our faces. You make it sound like those dastardly gatherers of signatures, that secret weapon of rotten Libertarian 'extremists', bend our arms behind our backs and stick a pen in our teeth and wiggle our heads over the sheet for the signature and the money that will follow.

What are your own ulterior motives? You want us all to just say no to any and all ballot measures because the sneaky Libertarians will take over if we don't? I'm not a regular reader of your work, but a quick perusal of your paper's web site spills 'Liberal' all over my pants. Let's face it, we all want everything to be our way. Every Politician vows to fight for the interests of their constituents but when our crappy government system offers them riches for voting one way or another, the vows get kicked out. How can the Libertarians be held accountable for that fact, Ray? How are the Libertarians responsible the corruption and slime that oozes down the halls of every governmental office from D.C. to City Hall? Libertarians aren't even allowed to speak in public TV broadcasts.

You are doing a bit of hoodwinking yourself.

LibertyforOregon
LibertyforOregon
Aug 04, 2006 11:43 AM

Of course Prof. Echeverria calls outrage at the Kelo case "eminent domain hysteria"; what do you expect the head of the "Environmental Law and Policy Institute" to say? He schools the type of overpaid bureaucrats who tell the little old lady she can't cut the blackberry bushes in her own backyard, declare irrigated farmland "protected wetlands", restrict people from clearing brush to protect their property from wildfires, prevent harvesting of trees or even the logging of deadwood, forbid the building of roads or cabins so people can enjoy the forest, keep gas prices high and America dependent on foreign oil by restricting domestic development, and so on. Objecting to the collusion of government with unscrupulous developers to steal homes and businesses in order to build factories or luxury condos which will better fill the coffers of City Hall is hardly "hysteria." Kelo was not an aberration, and publicity over it has woken up people to the injustices, big small, that property owners face day after day at the hands of government. These range from forced buyouts of homes which have been in the family for generations to telling you that if you want to rebuild your wooden porch, it has to be handicapped-accessible. Founding Father John Adams once observed, "The moment the idea is admitted into society that property is not as sacred as the laws of God, and there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence." Oregon now has another initiative up for a vote in November which forbids local governments from using eminent domain to seize property and in order to transfer it to another private party. It's a sad commentary on the courts that such seizures can take place as eminent domain was intended to only cover cases of public use--the building of a road, bridge, highway, park, etc. When public use is interpreted as anything which brings in more revenue to the local government than what you pay in property taxes, no one's property is secure. Register to vote in your State and vote for initiatives on the ballot which restore property rights and curb government's abuse of it's regulatory powers.

jacobsenp
jacobsenp
Aug 08, 2006 11:19 AM

Calling public policies government obscures the reality that weakening land use laws hurts us all. Government is us, and reflects our values. It was a public policy in Oregon that restricted what one can and cannot do with a parcel of land. Measure 37 takes away too much power from the community and gives it the individual. To the loss of everyone else.

peggybruton
peggybruton
Aug 10, 2006 11:33 AM

In Washington State, many people believe I-933, the "takings" initiative, also deals with eminent domain. The campaign to pass the initiative seems to be fostering this mistaken impression. Under "What I-933 will protect" at the pro 933 website, three examples of eminent domain are at the top of the list.  But in the FAQ section, same website, there's this question  "Why doesn't [I-933] specifically address the government's use of eminent domain to take private property?" The response concludes: ". . .including that in our initiative could have made it susceptible to later legal challenges under the single subject rule." So how come they're both implying and denying this is about eminent domain? Might we suspect a deliberate effort to mislead voters?

cissy
cissy
Sep 01, 2006 12:08 PM

What some folks blindly fail to realize is that land use planning and zoning protects us all. It also protects the finite and fragile natural resources that we all need to live on this planet. Not everyone knows how to be a good steward of the land. It comes down to understanding that our future and the future of our loved ones takes just a bit of careful consideration beyond what is here and now. Land use planning and zoning was not created to incur hardship on anyone, but rather protect the health, safety and welfare of all. As someone who has worked in both planning and development, I can say that there are improvements that definitely need to be made in the planning front, but for the most part, planners are dilligent in trying to do the right thing. Often times, its the final governing/decision making body that muddles things and creates confusion, frustration and bad planning. In addition, what does anyone think our beautiful state of Montana will look like when these important controls are undermined by I-194? Lets take a hard look at what the entire western front could become if we make a bad decision. Taxpayers and neighbors will ultimately pay the price in both physical and social ramifications and also out of their taxpayer pocket book!

wildiris1022
wildiris1022
Oct 11, 2006 11:05 AM

For the best discussion I have read recently on the issue of Property Values vs Property Rights - is on the land use planning advocate for Oregon's (1000 Friends of Oregon) website - www.friends.org. On the top left corner of the home page you will see CURRENT ISSUES, click on that, go to Measure 37, click on that, scroll to the bottom of the page to a speech entitled Private Property and Public Values. The information contained in this speech is very informational and very eye-opening. I am a one year resident of Oregon, and am appalled that Measure 37 was passed, obviously slanted information was given to voters and the other side did not, for one reason or another, did not get the real message out. This should be required reading for anyone in the west where legislation is now pending on property rights.

Anonymous
Apr 13, 2007 11:26 AM


I have always believed that when a property owner loses land-use rights because of environmental regulation, he or she should be compensated according to eminent domain law and precedent, but these popular initiatives seem to make the issue much more complicated.  I remember a few years ago in Utah, Orin Hatch, an anti-environmental Republican Senator, introduced a bill into congress that provided for this type of compensation.  It was defeated.  I remember at least one commentator saying that the bill was introduced in a cynical attempt to make enforcement of environmental regulation too expensive and was intended to subvert environmental law in a way similar to what this article suggests.  I don't think thats right, but still, it seems like common sense that the community should compensate a land-owner for loss of land use.        


Anonymous
May 29, 2007 02:01 PM

This is why we need Ron Paul in the presidency.  He knows that government needs to stay out, but he's intelligent enough to know that complete chaos should be prevented at the same time.  An intelligent person in the White House?  Maybe it's possible!

 

Vote Ron Paul 2008!