Civil Liberties

Taking on Takings

Property Fights


Wade Bennett, the proprietor of a 70-acre orchard and bamboo grove outside Seattle, is not a confrontational man. But when state officials decided they wanted to increase development-free river buffers for environmental and recreational purposes, Bennett got belligerent. The new rules would put 10 percent of his orchard out of production.

"Do we need some common regulations to keep people together?" Bennett asks. "Yes. But when it comes to transferring my rights and my property to the state because other people want it for recreation? That's wrong."

Bennett isn't the only one who thinks taking private property is bad business. Having attracted the signatures of more than 318,000 citizens, the Property Fairness Initiative will appear on the Washington state ballot in November. The measure would require the government to "consider and document" the impact of new regulations on private property and either compensate or exempt landowners if new rules damage the use or value of their property. This "does not include restrictions that apply equally to all property," so regulations that exist "to prevent an immediate threat to human health and safety" can't be challenged.

A similar referendum passed recently in Oregon, and campaigns for others are under way in at least five other states across the West: Montana, Idaho, Arizona, Nevada, and California. One factor galvanizing residents, according to Terry L. Anderson, executive director of the Property and Environment Research Center in Bozeman, Montana, was Kelo v. New London, the 2005 Supreme Court case that upheld the government's authority to take property for economic development.

Washington wants to clear the way for citizens "to come and take pictures," notes Wade Bennett. "But the problem is that it's our private property. It doesn't belong to the state. If they want to use my property, then they can buy it. It's that simple."