Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Eminent Domain Assault by Readington Against Solberg Land is Democracy in Action—and Un-American

My hometown of Readington Township, New Jersey, has been the scene of a long-running battle over a large swath of land surrounding Solberg Airport. This is a small local airport owned by the Solberg family, descendants of aviation pioneer Thor Solberg. The township wants to seize 725 acres of the Solberg's undeveloped land that surrounds its 102 acre facility, to preserve as "open space." Underlying the drive to keep Readington "green" is the fear that Solberg may eventually be expanded, possibly into a major regional jetport akin to JFK International.

In an article titled Readington continues legal battles to keep land around Solberg Airport green, Renee Kiriluk-Hill writes:

The process is driven, in part, by a $22 million bond ordinance that voters approved in 2006. The approval essentially requires the township to either acquire 625 open acres surrounding the airport and the development rights to about 100 acres used for airport operations, or to negotiate a settlement with the airport owners.This year the township is budgeting $275,000 for legal expenses for the Solberg case and routine business before the Township Committee, Planning Board and other local government bodies. 

I love the term "negotiate" in this context. The Solberg's choice is either to "agree" to "voluntarily" sell their land to Readington, or have it seized through eminent domain. If this sounds like a mob boss "making an offer you can't refuse," it is exactly that. To call that a "negotiation" is an insult to any rational person's intelligence.

The editors of the Hunterdon County Democrat subsequently argued that "Taxpayers have a right to decide for themselves if they are getting the value they deserve for continuing the legal dispute with the Solbergs." 

Both miss the crucial point. Both the editors and Kiriluk-Hill speak of "voters" and "taxpayers" as if they are homogeneous wholes; i.e., entities separate from and above individual voters and taxpayers. But what about taxpayers who oppose the entire initiative, rendering that question moot?

That question was the subject of my letter-to-the-editor published in the Hunterdon County Democrat under the heading The government is abusing its legal powers in Readington:

"To the editor:

"In a May 21 article on about Readington continuing it legal battles to keep land around Solberg Airport green, Renee Kiriluk-Hill reported that this year Readington has budgeted thousands of dollars for 'legal expenses' related to this 'battle,' as has been the case over the past eight years. She notes that, 'The process is driven, in part, by a $22 million bond ordinance that voters approved in 2006.'

"But not all voters approved of this bond issue, which underpins the efforts to seize the Solberg’s land through eminent domain. That there are voters who didn't vote for the bond issue might seem obvious, but this fact deserves serious consideration.

"I oppose eminent domain on moral grounds. Whether the purpose is to keep land 'green' or to head off airport expansion, it is simply unjust to use government’s legal powers — essentially the power of the gun — to confiscate private land against the owner’s wishes. It is likewise unjust to force those who disagree to finance this outrage through their taxes.

"Some would say to me, 'That’s democracy, majority rules.' Yes, it is, and that is the most damning indictment of democracy: that it grants the majority the power to trample the rights and violate the consciences of the minority. The government should not have the power to impose any voting bloc’s desire to violate others’ rights.

"Government’s proper purpose is to protect individual rights, including rights to property and freedom of conscience, from criminals who violate rights by initiating force or fraud. The legal assault against the Solbergs, being pursued under the veneer of false legitimacy accorded by democracy, turns the government’s very reason for being on its head."  

The township claims the right to seize the land in order to preserve it as "open space" and to prevent the airport from being expanded. My sense is that using eminent domain to stop development is a much harder sell in the courts than the open space rational. But, make no mistake, fear of a larger airport is the driving force behind the issue. When  the issue first arose, it was controversial. The township was sprinkled with competing signs, some demanding "No Jets," and others stating "Stop Eminent Domain! It is Un-American." 

My wife and I plan to live in Readington for a long time, so I do not want to see Solberg expanded into a jetport. But  the erosion of property and other individual rights is the real threat to our well-being. The Solbergs have an inalienable right to use their property as they see fit, so long as that use doesn't violate the rights of others—that is, initiate force or fraud against others. If this means I may someday have to live in a town with a jetport, so be it.

Doesn't the community have a say in the matter? No. The "community," as such, has no rights, because it doesn't exist as an entity. Like any other group by any other name (voters, taxpayers), a community is a loose aggregate of individuals, who each possess rights individually. If the community has the right to impose its will on individuals, then in practice some individuals have the right to impose their will on other individuals. No one can have that right: That is, no one has the right to declare "the community, c'est moi," and impose "the community's" will on others at the point of a governmental gun.

Don't surrounding residents, as individuals, have rights? Of course; the same rights as the Solbergs. If they believe that airport operations pose an objective physical danger to their lives and property, beyond the normal risks associated with air travel, they can seek government action (through the courts) to have those risks remediated. For a good explanation of how the rights of surrounding residents play into this issue, listen to Yaron Brook answer the question Should the government regulate the use of private property if that use creates risks for its neighbors?  

The government does have a role in mediating disputes among individuals. But it has no role outside of the context of a physical threat to the lives and properties of others, and may not regulate or prohibit the use of property simply because some people feel that they may be inconvenienced.

Of course, what I just described is relevant in a free market, and we don't have a free market today. The government does regulate airports. In the current context, the Solbergs would have to apply to state and federal aviation agencies for any expansion plans. Be that as it may, that is their right, and so is it the local residents' right to participate in that process as proscribed by law. The threat to steal the Solberg's land should not be part of that process.

Related Reading:

Eminent Domain—Always an Abuse

Honoring American Heroes...Forgetting American Ideals

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