When the peons get uppity, Part II

We adjourned last week just as former County Commissioner Bruce Woodbury was trooping into the newspaper’s offices Oct. 13, accompanied by Jacob Snow of the Regional Transportation Monopoly, Susan Martinovich of the Nevada Department of Transportation, et al.

The group sang in harmony a two-part tune, insisting that life under PISTOL (the People’s Initiative to Stop the Taking of Our Land) is an abomination, while the changes they want to make in the hard-won, voter-approved constitutional amendment with ballot Question 4 are minimal, minimal …

For instance, PISTOL allows landowners to collect attorneys’ fees if they fight a threatened eminent domain taking. Mr. Snow says this provision is already generating many “scurrilous suits,” including one in which a landowner is suing on the contention his property’s value has been decreased because regional transportation planners marked his land as a future bridge site.

Get it? If you can’t sell your land, or if you have to sell it for less because it’s identified on an official government map for future seizure to provide the space for a police station or a bridge abutment, and you sue for the amount by which they’ve thus devalued your land, Mr. Snow considers you “scurrilous.”

Meantime, Mr. Woodbury insists they don’t want a very big change: Under their plan, the landowner still would be able to “apply to the court” for attorney fees … and cross their fingers.

At the time the Pappas family decided to fight the seizure of their downtown Las Vegas retail block to make way for a parking garage (which sat mostly empty for years) for politically favored private development, at least a dozen other local property owners gave up, decided “you can’t fight City Hall,” and took the city’s low-ball offers. (The Pappas family fought for years to win more than 10 times what they’d initially been offered — though a quarter of that went to lawyers.)

Why did the others — including former U.S. Sen. Chic Hecht — cave? They could have applied for attorney fees years later, if they prevailed — precisely the same situation to which Mr. Woodbury would now like to revert. But no attorney will take such a case with no more guarantee than “We can get on our knees and beg for your fees later, someday, maybe.”

This change would make all of Mr. Snow’s feared “scurrilous suits” go away, wouldn’t it? And that’s “just a small tweak”?

PISTOL, easily approved by voters in 2006 and 2008, calls for separate jury trials to determine “public use” as well as property value. Mr. Woodbury et al. say that will take too long — they’d rather have such decisions made by local judges, like Stephen Huffaker, the one who made several adverse rulings against the Pappases before acknowledging that, maybe, his ownership of stock in the Four Queens downtown casino constituted, um, maybe, just a slight conflict of interest.

Ms. Martinovich complained that what NDOT would like to do is gradually acquire land alongside Interstate 15 between the Spaghetti Bowl and Sahara Avenue as the agency can afford to, evicting the small businesses there, throwing their employees on the dole, taking up to 15 years before they’re ready to widen that stretch of highway. (Full disclosure: The brunette rents space at the Charleston Antique Mall, which would be affected, though I dare say she’ll be able to relocate when necessary.)

But under PISTOL, the NDOT warrior queen complained, the state agency can’t start buying up land and evicting tenants until they’re within five years of actually building their project!

Oh, the humanity! Let us weep great crocodile tears for the Nevada Department of Transportation. It’s intolerable! Already I can envision the NDOT chief, all hope abandoned, clasping the dreaded asp to her bosom.

Does PISTOL really add costs? Or does it simply transfer those once-hidden costs to the government agencies that ought to factor those real costs into their plans, instead of requiring that the same costs be absorbed by those who always took the loss in the past — the private property owners?

Mr. Woodbury breathes a sigh of relief that at least all of PISTOL wasn’t allowed to go on the ballot. Why, that would have required local governments to pay the true costs of all their central planning schemes, including property devaluation due to planning, zoning and restrictive business licensing!

Repeal PISTOL? I’ve got a better idea. Let’s demand a chance to enact the rest of it.

Two weeks ago I asked Nevada Supreme Court Justice James Hardesty when the voters might get to vote on the second half of the PISTOL initiative — the half the Supreme Court left lying on the floor when it “bifurcated” the voter-qualified petition back in 2006.

Those sections would have allowed property owners to sue if any government action negatively impacts a property’s value — not just the taking of land.

Hardesty told me, “I can’t comment on that, because it’s a matter that could very well still come before the court.”

Really? Then why doesn’t someone do so?

Meantime, if central planning works so well, let the central planners go back to L.A., Chicago, or whatever self-created, unaffordable regulatory hellhole they fled to come here.

Vin Suprynowicz is assistant editorial page editor of the Review-Journal, and author of “The Black Arrow.” See www.vinsuprynowicz.com.

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