Monday, August 31, 2009

Shakedown in Shanksville

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on Monday announced that a $9.5 million deal has finally been struck to acquire the last land parcels needed to move forward with a Flight 93 Memorial near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, bringing a supposedly happy ending to a decidedly ugly affair, in which Salazar threatened and used eminent domain against landowners who wouldn't sell, or wouldn't sell for what the feds were offering.

The “breakthrough” delighted Flight 93 families, who now can have a memorial open (they hope) in time to mark the 10th anniversary of 9-11. But the heavy-handed tactics undoubtedly left some hard feelings in and around Shanksville, where property rights were trampled, and American citizens were intimidated, in order to meet a timetable set by politicians and Flight 93 families.

Here's the final chapter in a nutshell, courtesy of the New York Times:

"The announcement ends years of bargaining with landowners. Negotiations intensified at the end of last year when, with some parcels still in limbo, the Families of Flight 93, a nonprofit group that has been helping with the purchases, asked the Bush administration to get something done before it left office.

This summer, with time running short to get the first $58 million phase of the memorial completed in time for the 10th anniversary of the crash, the Interior Department set a deadline for the remaining landowners and threatened to take the land through condemnation."

Salazar avoided the bad publicity that might come from bulldozing over the holdouts, but only because he held all the cards and the landowners knew it. "Christine Williams, whose family owned about 6 acres with a log cabin they had planned to retire to, said she was pleased to settle, given the alternative of government seizure," reported The AP (italics added). Williams really didn't have a choice, in other words. She made the best of a no-win situation -- the lot of many a landowner confronted with a government "taking."

That she wasn't physically evicted from her log cabin is just a technicality, which saves Salazar the bad publicity such a scene would bring. But make no mistake: the Williams family was forcibly evicted from its cabin. Yet most news coverage painted a smiley face on the whole affair, making it seem like everyone involved walked away happy.

Would it be nice to have a memorial built in time to mark the 10th anniversary? Of course. Does that justify using threats to make "willing sellers" of those who weren't willing? I don't think so. I have to believe those being memorialized in Shanksville would rest a little easier if they knew that those trying to honor them had exercised a little more patience, and avoided the use of such tactics, with landowners who stood in their way.

In a lame attempt to echo Lincoln, Salazar spoke of the “fields of western Pennsylvania” having become “hallowed ground for a grateful nation" after the events of 9-11. "Thanks to the collaborative efforts of the landowners, the Families of Flight 93 and the employees of the National Park Service, we have reached this important milestone in properly honoring the courage and sacrifice of the men and women who gave their lives that day," he said.

But that overstates the “collaborativeness” of the landowners, some of whom sold under pressure or are having their property taken through eminent domain. The land in question, although maybe not “hallowed” before the jetliner came down there, was valued enough by some owners that they put up a fight. Salazar’s attempted echoes of Gettysburg are strained and slightly gag-inducing. None of the Gettysburg National Cemetery land was acquired through threats or intimidation. I’m not sure “honest Abe” would have approved.

Most media coverage of Monday's announcement left it unclear whether eminent domain had even been used. Most stories glossed right over that detail. Only one report (of the 8 or 9 I read that night) confirmed that eminent domain was used to acquire one critically important parcel, with the final sale price still to be settled in court.

"A 275-acre property at the heart of the future memorial, which includes the crash site itself, will be acquired through eminent domain, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said at a news conference,” reported USA Today. “The price of the land will be set by the court. The National Park Service and the landowner, Svonavec, a mining company, had not been able to agree on a price." It took the Associated Press several days to generate a story that focused any real attention on the eminent domain angle.

Salazar’s hard bargaining over money strikes me as odd and unnecessary, since the $9.5 million the feds will reportedly spend on these last parcels is probably what his department blows on staples each year. Governments at all levels are notorious for wasting taxpayers' money. They do it as a matter of routine, on a grand and obscene scale. Yet they suddenly become penny-pinchers, and "good stewards of public money," when it comes to paying the victims of eminent domain what they are owed, in accordance with The U.S. Constitution.

Given the dislocation and trauma such proceedings can mean for the victims, paying these people "fair market value" for their property, as determined by an appraiser, is a rip-off and crime. They should be paid 3 or 4 times the fair market value, at least, in order to compensate them for the pain and suffering they endure at the hands of the government. When these cases go to trial, juries routinely award compensation far in access of what governments were willing to pay -- one demonstration of the injustices that are perpetrated when governments use eminent domain to drive a hard bargain.

Why didn’t Salazar just pay the locals their asking price, whatever it was, plus a few million more for their trouble? Who would object, or even notice, given the way Interior and other federal agencies spend money? I wouldn't call it a waste of money. I would call it "reparations," which the government should pay for perpetrating an injustice upon American citizens, who became targets of a government "taking" simply because they happen to live near where a tragedy occurred. That, in my view, would be money well spent.

So yes, Ken Salazar's Interior Department "reached agreement" with the holdouts. But reaching such agreements becomes a lot easier, and the terms of sale can be surprisingly affordable, when you have the hammer of eminent domain as leverage. That the second victims of Flight 93 are surrendering their land for a good cause may provide some of them consolation. But this “happy ending” is nothing Americans can be proud of.

Perhaps a small plaque or historic marker can be placed somewhere near the Flight 93 Memorial, noting the sacrifices local property owners made in order to accommodate those pushing the project. “This is the spot where America's belief in the sanctity of private property was laid to rest,” it might say. We can call it the American Property Rights Memorial.

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