Tags: Senate | 'Land | Grab' | Angers | Property | Rights | Activists

Senate 'Land Grab' Angers Property Rights Activists

Thursday, 03 January 2002 12:00 AM

Still, opponents call it a "land grab" that gives state bureaucrats and environmental groups the power to call the shots over private property.

The American Wildlife Enhancement Act of 2001 was passed by voice vote in the Senate on Dec. 20 as an add-on to an existing law, the Conservation and Reinvestment Act (CARA).

But Michael Hardiman, a lobbyist for the American Land Rights Association, dubs it the "Condemnation and Relocation Act."

"Reinvestment" is a just a euphemism, said Hardiman.

"In other words, you're going to seize property and hand out grants to your friends," he said.

CARA and the new Senate bill work by granting federal tax collars to a variety of conservation groups, with state land management agencies getting the lion's share of the money. State agencies can then condemn a property owner's land and use CARA grant money to compensate the property owner for what the agency deems is the land's "fair market value."

Landowners argue that what the government calculates as fair market value is far below the land's real market value. They also complain that their only option in challenging a government agency's decision is to take the government to court - a long, arduous and expensive process for the average landowner.

According to Hardiman, the Senate bill's success was due to the deft political maneuvering of the bill's chief sponsors, Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Bob Smith, R-N.H. The duo was able to get a voice vote on the bill the afternoon the Senate adjourned for the year.

Also, Hardiman said Reid and Smith were successful in recruiting a key conservative - Michael Crapo, R-Idaho, - to co-sponsor the bill as a favor to Smith, who Hardiman believes is trying to court liberal voters to win a 2002 primary challenge from fellow N.H. Republican, Rep. John Sununu.

With Crapo signed on, said Hardiman, other conservative senators assumed the bill would not harm landowners.

Susan Wheeler, a spokesperson for Crapo, said the lawmaker "is good friends with Sen. Smith, as he is with a number of members of Congress, [but he] would not sign onto a bill as a favor to a senator that would abrogate private property rights."

Wheeler did agree with Hardiman that Crapo stood out among the bill's otherwise liberal-to-moderate co-sponsors. "It is an interesting group," she said.

But, said Wheeler, Crapo believed the bill was "consistent with ... allowing states to make [conservation] decisions. The bill does not go after private property [and] there is no federal land acquisition in the bill; it's only at the state level.

"The senator would have preferred to see more debate on this bill," Wheeler added. "But no senator stepped forward to place a hold on the bill or seek debate."

The American Land Rights Association, a Washington state group, plans to mobilize its members against the House bill, which goes even further than its counterpart passed in the Senate.

The pending House bill spends more ($3.1 billion annually versus $600 million) and sets up a trust fund for the CARA program in which the money is automatically spent, instead of requiring Congress to agree on spending every year.

Also, the House bill, which land rights groups call "full CARA," has "additional threat[s]," as Hardiman puts it. It allows state agencies to designate urban parks and recreation land as conservation areas.

Spokespeople for Senators Reid and Smith did not return calls seeking comment.

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Still, opponents call it a land grab that gives state bureaucrats and environmental groups the power to call the shots over private property. The American Wildlife Enhancement Act of 2001 was passed by voice vote in the Senate on Dec. 20 as an add-on to an existing law,...
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Thursday, 03 January 2002 12:00 AM
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