Civil Liberties

This Land Is My Land, This Land Is Also My Land


Say you're the city of Ames. (Don't you feel wholesome and corn-fed?) And you want to put up a new water treatment plant just inside city limits. The owners of that land refuse to sell. Sounds like a job for eminent domain, right?

Not quite. The land is owned by the Department of Agriculture (USDA), which isn't allowed to sell the land. But all is not lost. Someone has figured out a way around this sticky problem. It's called substitute condemnation. You go after privately-owned farms in the area—although weirdly, outside the city—take those instead, and then swap their land for the USDA's land.

Ta da! Everybody wins! Oh no wait. That's completely untrue.

Last April, [Mona Kilborn, whose family has owned Griffith farm outside Ames for more than 100 years] received a letter from the city of Ames saying a portion of her family's 80-acre century farm "may be potentially impacted" by the construction of a $50 million water treatment plant….

When Kilborn objected, she said a city employee told her the transaction was similar to a simple eminent domain deal involving new roads and electric lines.

Sitting in her kitchen, with dozens of letters and documents spread out on the kitchen table, Kilborn explains why it isn't.

"If the farm were needed for the treatment facility," she says, "that would be a direct sale and I could at least understand, but this seems very underhanded. I was shocked Ames could come outside city limits and condemn us out in the county. It seems like a good way to steal someone else's land.

Iowa's congressional delegation is trying to change the rules so that the city can buy the USDA land directly, leaving Kilborn and other private property holders out of it. All parties agree this would be a better solution. 

FYI: Iowa was actually part of the Kelo backlash. After the pro-eminent domain Supreme Court decision, the state added rules to make it harder to seize property in the name of economic development. But since this is a classic case of taking the land for public use, the new rules don't help much. 

Via tipster king Mark Lambert.