Monday, December 29, 2008

Integrity and Eminent Domain

On Sunday, December 28 a front-page story in the Chronicle details the city's use of eminent domain to seize a tiny parcel of land on San Felipe. The city seized the land under the guise of widening the street, though only a small part of the land was necessary for that purpose. The city plans to use the remainder of the land as a pocket park.

While such seizures of private property can never be morally justified, this particular story involves much more than just the city's violation of property rights. It hints at political favoritism, back room deals, and conflicts of interest.

At the heart of the controversy are developers Ed Wulfe and the Hanover Company, Mayor White, and Councilman Peter Brown. Both Wulfe and Hanover executives have made significant contributions to both White and Brown. In addition, Councilwoman Pam Holm, whom the Chronicle says "was intimately involved in the decision to seize the land" has also received substantial contributions from both Wulfe and Hanover employees.

Brown's wife is an investor in the project Hanover plans to build adjacent to the seized land. Questions are now being raised about a conflict of interest regarding Brown, who voted for the seizure. Only time will tell whether White, Brown, or Holm did anything illegal and/ or are paying off donors.

The Chronicle reports that the contract between Wulfe and Hanover stated "that either Wulfe 'and/ or a governmental entity or agency'" acquire title to the property. Within two months of the seizure Wulfe and Hanover closed their deal.

White has defended seizing the entire property, rather than the small amount needed to widen the road. Often the city must pay for the entire value of a property, he argued, even if only a portion is seized. It only made sense to get the best "deal" possible for the city.Of course, seizing private property and paying less than fair market value is always a good "deal" for the city. It was only after the fact that White decided to use the remaining land for a park. The city's parks director--Joe Turner-- has testified that

the park idea was pushed by the Uptown Houston District, a local development board on which Ed Wulfe has a seat. Also on the board is John Nash, president of the Hanover company.

John Breeding, president of the Uptown Houston District, said that although Wulfe and Nash sit on the board, they were not involved with the decision to acquire the land.

It was the Uptown Development Authority, a related but separate quasi-governmental entity with a separate board, that sought to buy the land and use a portion for a park, he said.

This entire deal has a very strong odor of impropriety. The fact is, government officials used their power to seize land and that seizure benefited political supporters and one official's spouse. The fact is, Wulfe needed that property to close his $12.5 million deal with Hanover, and when the owners refused to sell that land for $1.4 million, the city seized the land. The fact is, the city offered to pay only $433,800 for the land--though Wulfe offered $1.4 million. The owners are now in litigation.

But this would not be any sweeter smelling if the details were different--if Wulfe and Hanover were not campaign donors. The city would have still seized private property, and that is always wrong, whether the seizure occurs to widen a road, build a park, or pay off political cronies.

What is ironic about this is that the project planned by Hanover is a high-density, mixed-use development similar to another project that the Mayor and many on city Council have opposed--the Ashby High Rise. Much of the Mayor's political support comes from the neighborhoods opposing Ashby, which certainly make questions about his motives understandable.

All involved claim that nothing illegal or improper occurred. The Chronicle states that Brown consulted the City Attorney about recusing himself from the vote to seize the property--after the vote. But whether explicit communications occurred to discuss this issue, all involved knew who and what was involved. And if they claim otherwise, we must question their competency to be city officials.

While the Mayor and Brown defend their integrity, the truth is, men in their position cannot act with integrity--they cannot be loyal to rational convictions and principles. Their jobs consist of making decisions that are implemented by force. Their decisions impose the values of some upon others. Their decisions compel some individuals to act contrary to their own convictions and principles.

If White and Brown really have a concern about their integrity, then they will begin by rejecting the premise that they--or anyone--has a right to compel others to act in a particular manner. They will reject the premise that might makes right. They will reject the premise that the alleged "public welfare" justifies seizing property and destroying lives. And they will embrace the moral right of each individual to his own life, liberty, and happiness. Of course, Buffalo Bayou is likely to freeze over before this occurs.


MikeB said...

Many thanks to Brian Phillips for your commitment to fight for private property rights. Adapting the familiar adage: Integrity and Eminent Domain is an oxymoron.

Traditionally, the "taking" of property under the badge of government is supposed to be for the public good, based on just compensation for property owners.

In many cases today, however, eminent domain has less to do with projects for the "public good" and everything to do with the financial good of publicly held corporations.

Nowadays, eminent domain usually means someone wants your property, and the government helps them take it. In Bedford county, PA, landowners are being taken to federal court (Johnstown) by Houston-based Spectra Energy Corporation and backed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

This amounts to legal theft and the property owners are fighting for their rights. Spectra Energy: using eminent domain to trample private property rights

Burgess Laughlin said...

I live in Portland, Oregon. More than 30 years ago, I started a book project about the city. The working title was "Who Rules Portland?" because I wanted to see who the people were who influenced the politicians and bureaucrats who force their values on others.

I was amazed at how little supposed ideological differences ("conservative" and "liberal") made when networks of coercive power grow. There were instances of individuals running very large businesses socializing with advocates of welfare recipients' "rights." The scene was that of two trees growing close to each other, with their roots entangled. Between them, they block the sunlight, cover the ground with dead leaves, and draw most of the water out of the soil--creating a dead zone beneath their branches.

Ideas drive history because ideas drive individual actions. The fascination, for me, of local history and current local politics is that a careful observer can see the individual social connections one at a time.

The project was so depressing that I abandoned it. Today, all these years later, I would have the perspective to finish it. My central purpose in life leads me elsewhere. Otherwise I would undertake such a project immediately.

Such an ostensibly small-scale project would be akin to an early biologist examining a drop of pond water under a microscope. There is a world of activity there, even at that small scale. And the lessons learnable might very well be applicable on a much broader scale.

Thank you for the article. It takes a close look at the various life forms--and draws big lessons.

Brian Phillips said...

Thanks Mike. It seems to be a standard business practice to use government coercion to make a deal. If you can't present a deal tht the other party will accept, simply pull a few political strings, make a few donations, and the government will do the rest.

Burgess-- Your comments remind me of an experience I had in Hobbs, NM last year. I was there to fight a proposed zoning ordinance. The Republicans supported the ordinance, while the Democrats opposed it. It is said that politics makes strange bedfellows. This is often true, because most politicians have no principles and will unite on any issue that seems politically expedient.