Opposition from landowners and apparent supporters of the Kelo decision has killed a really good idea. The Lake County Commission was considering selling a piece of the old county poor farm to Game Fish & Parks to create a public access area on the southwest side of Lake Madison. Spectacular idea! On a lake already packed cheek by jowl with houses symbolic of our wealthy class's conspicuous consumption, a free public access area would be a welcome and appropriate use for land once dedicated to caring for the poor.
But no. Linda Hilde and a Lake Madison neighbor gave commissioners an earful at the Tuesday meeting. Commissioners responded by tabling the proposal indefinitely. Hilde and friend's reasons for opposing a new public access area:
- GF&P already owns five pieces of land on Lake Madison. That's "quite a lot of access," says Hilde.
- Instead of leasing the land to GF&P for a measly $500 a year, the county should plat the poor farm and sell it for more swanky houses. "Lakeshore property is (selling) for between $200,000 and $300,000 per 100 feet," Hilde said. "That's a lot of money to give away for fishing" [quotes from Elisa Sand, "County Tables Lake Access Agreement," Madison Daily Leader, 2008.12.31].
- The county's first priority should be raising tax revenue.
- The commission was acting "suddenly" and should wait until summer, when Lake Madison's seasonal residents would be around to give input.
- The lease agreement leaves the door open for GF&P to develop the land for more than fishing.
Oh yeah, money. Tax revenue. "Hilde said the job of a Lake County commissioner is to determine what makes the best business sense for the county, and giving away a valuable piece of property for public access doesn't make sense" [Sand].
I beg to differ. The job of a Lake County Commissioner is to protect and promote the general welfare. Sometimes that means promoting economic development. Sometimes that means passing on a chance to make money in favor of supporting a worthy public project.
Decades ago, my neighbor Gerry Lange owned the big stretch of land to my north. He platted and sold the land along County Road 41 for housing, but the majority of the land he handed to the state. There was already plenty of public access on Lake Herman—the state park, Territorial Road, much more proportionally than Lake Madison has now. By Hilde's fiscal reasoning, Lange did a great disservice to the county by taking his land off the tax rolls for fishing and boating. The city of Madison committed an even worse travesty when it gave the state the land that became Lake Herman State Park. That land could have had so many houses generating so much tax revenue. Now what are we stuck with? Trees. Fishing spots. Boat ramps. Walking trails. Picnic tables. Campsites.
It's a short step from Hilde's reasoning to the Kelo decision, in which five Supreme Court justices said the county commission could kick me off my land and hand it to a developer who promises to build something that will generate more tax revenue than my measly $100,000 house. Forgive me if I find the reasoning of Hilde and the Court faulty.
Sure, there's already "quite a lot of access" to Lake Madison. There's also already quite a lot more private land with big expensive houses swelling the tax rolls (and sitting idle for a majority of the year). Let's invest in the future by looking beyond the dollars and making the poor farm a park all of us can enjoy all year round.