Property rights

Measure 37 points to private primacy

August 13, 2005

This newspaper reported on Aug. 3 that the quick turnaround on a sale of land for a Hood River campus of Columbia Gorge Community College had sparked questions of propriety over the deal.

Upon further review, it appears the sale of the land on the Heights did happen hastily but nothing untoward happened. Establishment of a college site in Hood River is in the best interest of the community and the passage of the $18.5 million construction bond measure in November 2004 proves the community is willing to pay for a center. College board members and administration understand the value of sustaining community support for CGCC-Hood River as place to provide education and employment enhancement for residents of Hood River County.

Use of the “condemnation” option we do not believe was a hammer in the purchase of the land from Robert Gilham, a British national who had been reluctant to sell the 13.5-acre site on 12th Street. Gilham had plans to develop a subdivision that would have been worth more than $3 million.

In condemnation proceedings, a public agency informs an unwilling landowner that it will impose a purchase of the property in order to carry out a project requiring the use of the land.

The purchase is contingent upon site inspections and other work to ensure the acreage is appropriate for development. A due diligence period started on July 22 and the closing is set for Sept. 21. The college selected the land in the Heights after reviewing 11 sites in Hood River over the past four years.

The college’s sense of urgency is understandable; voters passed $18.5 million in bonds in 2004, and the college is awaiting final word on $10.8 million in additional funds that will affect the project’s size and features. Further, the bond approval established deadlines to initiate the project and the college must proceed with the work later this year.

Yet we encourage the college and any other public entity to look to condemnation only as a last resort. As a procedural device it is there for a reason, but must be reserved for emergencies. Real estate dealings are primarily conducted in closed executive session (as they should be) and are not subject to standard reporting in the media, so in the case of the college it remains unclear if matters approached emergency measures.

Condemnation has been done before. A school board in Washington state filed condemnation on a landowner who was reluctant to sell at the price offered by the district. In their case, without all landowners agreeing to sell, the district would have been forced to buy another, less suitable site for a larger price. The question of the larger good came into play.

But in the state of Oregon in 2005, public agencies must reckon with the clear belief held by most Oregonians: The primacy of the individual’s property rights. This is evidenced by passage last year by Measure 37, under which a landowner can request compensation for regulations that devalued his/her property by taking away the use allowed at the time of acquisition. In lieu of payment, the agency has the option to remove the restriction.

The full extent and impact of Measure 37 is still being determined, but put the legalities aside and look at the spirit of the voters’ decision.

What policy makers must reckon with is that the people believe that a landowner is entitled to the full and unencumbered value of his or her property.

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