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Stop RTD in its tracks – and fast

Opinion Editorial
March 17, 2008

By Kate Melvin

Colorado’s taxpayers are beginning to take note of a recent abuse of our Constitution: eminent domain law. Simply put, the Fifth Amendment gives our government the right to compensate private property owners if their land must be seized for a public works project.

If you wanted to open your own business but the land was currently occupied, it would not be within your rights to exercise eminent domain and seize the land for your private gain. You could not tax citizens to fund your expansion, continue despite an increasing budget gap, seize the land unjustly, and be without consequence when your under-researched plan inevitably falls through.

Must be nice to be RTD.

Of the 10 biggest metro light-rail systems in the country, Denver’s per capita ridership falls somewhere in the middle and overall ridership numbers are ninth of 10. RTD’s motives for expansion are questionable. The methods for going about it, however, are flat-out unjust.

Massive cost overruns and land seizure? Just to ride a train?

When taxpayers voted on Referendum 4A in 2004, we agreed to fund a $4.7 billion project, not $6.1 billion. More disappointing than the budget gap is RTD’s gross misinterpretation of the Fifth Amendment for the West Corridor expansion project. Among others, its attempt to seize Pro-Tint, a Lakewood window-tinting business on the corner of 14th and Wads- worth, shows that to RTD, seizing a taxpayer’s private land (which includes their home and their business) for “economic benefit” is not an unreasonable seizure, which the Constitution clearly forbids.

At the core of this debate seems to be the definition of “economic benefit.” No one can argue that exercising eminent domain for building a public highway, public education center, or even light-rail track is unfair. Along those same lines, it is safe to say that exercising eminent domain to build a retail center, coffee shops, and private residences is not fair. And yet this is exactly what RTD plans to do.

RTD was suspicious yet cooperative in making available the blueprints and zoning documents that detail the land usage for the property at 1398 Wads- worth Blvd. This area has been designated a SC-TMU, meaning it is in the “Station Core” of a “Transit Mixed Use” zone. The phrase “Transit Mixed Use” in itself tells us the land is not for transit alone, but for mixed uses. And, in fact, this is exactly what the city of Lakewood tells us:

“Projects within this area will include a mix of retail, office, hotel, civic, cultural, and multifamily residential uses. Transit stations and associated parking facilities will generally be located within this sub-area as well. . . . All new buildings within this sub-area shall contain at least two of the three uses described above. Up to 75 percent of the gross floor area of a project in the Station Core sub-area may be residential.”

There is a list of 30 permitted uses for the land, all of which include retail and residential operations. There is a list of only eight things not permitted, including “adult businesses, drive-ins, junkyards, kennels, mini-warehouses, outdoor storage, pawnbrokers, and motor vehicle service facilities.”

How convenient. This list happens to specifically exclude Pro-Tint as a qualified businesses to exist in this SC-TMU zone.

House Bill 1278 specifically intends to limit RTD’s ability to seize private property for development purposes. Cal Marsella, RTD general manager, can claim all he wants that RTD is “not in the development business,” but there is no question that abusing eminent domain law for the seizure and sale of private property to offset an increasing project budget gap is unjust. The bill passed the Transportation and Energy Committee in late February, and Friday passed the Appropriations Committee with a 7-5 vote. It now moves on to the House for another vote.

Taxpayers are beginning to take note of this behavior. Just because your property isn’t in the way of the FasTracks West Corridor expansion doesn’t mean it won’t be in the way of RTD’s next project down the road. The debate here is not over “fair market value” or a need for FasTracks. Instead, it is our civic duty to hold public organizations accountable for the actions they take with taxpayer dollars.

Kate Melvin is a junior at the University of Colorado Denver and a research intern for the Independence Institute’s Property Rights Project.