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Monday, October 26, 2009

A Bike Trail Is Not a Pipeline: Where I Don't Stand on Eminent Domain

Sibby cuts to to the heart of an issue that I've been grappling with myself on the proposed Lake Herman bike trail:

During the TransCanada pipeline issue, you took what I thought was a pro-property rights position. But now it is obvious that you are not for property rights. So your TransCanada position must have been based soley on your radical environmental ideological worldview [Steve Sibson, comment, Madville Times, 2009.10.25].

Steve isn't the only Sibson whom I expected to brand me as an ideological traitor, and I've been mighty nervous about that very prospect. I have been very vocal in my opposition to the use of eminent domain and my defense of personal property rights for everyone from the farmers and ranchers along the Keystone pipeline and DM&E rail routes to Madison's own Dick Wiedenman. Yet I have characterized farmer David Pitts's language in defense of his property rights against encroachment by a bike trail as "selfish, inconsistent, and at least unneighborly if not insulting."

Sibby and Jason Bjorklund both rightly ask, What gives?

Review the record: at no point have I said I support taking David Pitts's land or anyone else's by eminent domain for the proposed bike trail. I've said previously that I oppose using eminent domain to build a bike trail. When I heard folks talking about the prospect of resorting to eminent domain for this project, my heart sank.

But let's get clear on one thing: TransCanada's use of eminent domain to build the Keystone pipeline is very different from the potential use of eminent domain to build the bike trail to Lake Herman.
  1. The TransCanada land grab transferred land rights from various private parties to another private party. Eminent domain for this bike trail would transfer private land rights to the general public.
  2. TransCanada took land under the flimsy claim that its pipeline is a "common carrier," a notion I find laughable, since TransCanada is the only party making direct use of the pipeline. The Lake Herman bike trail would be open to use by all residents and visitors alike.
  3. TransCanada's Keystone pipeline provides no direct benefit to any landowner whose land has been taken for the pipeline easement or to any adjoining community. A much stronger case can be made that the bike trail provides direct benefits to the community: increased tourism, increased sales tax revenue, more recreational activities, and safer bike and pedestrain travel in town and to and from Lake Herman State Park (and I'm not even working hard to think up those advantages). Even the landowner stands to benefit—I will posit that direct access to a bike trail increases the sale value of the land for residential and commercial development. (Real estate agents, feel free to chime in with your perspective!)
It is also important to note that we aren't even at the eminent domain stage yet. David Pitts sure makes it sound like he won't sell, no way, no how... but his position may be nothing more than hardball negotiation to squeeze from the city every penny he can get. I have no problem with driving a hard bargain to get the best market price possible, and from the sounds of it, the city will likely offer a price significantly better than market value to make this project happen.

As I said to Jason, I don't stand to benefit much personally from the bike trail. The shortest route for me to ride to town will still be Highway 34... and contrary to Mr. Pitts's opinion that I have all the time in the world, when it's 0°F, I want my ride to be as quick as possible.

I don't need a bike trail. I don't need David Pitts's land to get to class or the park or anywhere else I ride.

However, I can look beyond myself. I can recognize that a lot of casual cyclists don't feel comfortable going pedal-to-gas-pedal with texting teen drivers and rumbling semis. I can recognize that plenty of campers feel a bit uneasy taking their kids on a bike ride to town on a county road with no shoulder. And I can recognize that bicycle tourists won't make an extra trip to Madison just ride on the shoulder of a highway.

I hope Mr. Pitts will look at both his self-interest and the public interest and realize that expanding the right-of-way easement on his land can serve both. He can make a guaranteed pot of money up front and still sell his land for development, quite possibly at a better price. He can also pave the way for increased recreational opportunities and tourism that will benefit everyone in the county. The Lake Herman bike trail is a win-win situation. We shouldn't need eminent domain to make it happen.

But if Mr. Pitts can't see that, if he fails to see how he himself comes out ahead on this deal, the city will have to make a very clear and evidenced case that the public benefits of the bike trail outweigh the personal property rights of Mr. Pitts and the other landowners along the proposed route. I await the making of that case.


  1. Is there any other strong landowner opposition to the proposed bike trail project?

  2. I didn't hear any other strong resistance at the meeting... but there weren't many people there. I'm very curious to hear what the general public. Will avid riders and tourism boosters be willing to stick their necks out and make the strong arguments for the trail? Will anyone be able to offer arguments (or should I say payments?) persuasive enough to make every affected landowner realize a good bike trail would be a win for everyone?

  3. Steve Sibson10/27/2009 6:14 AM


    How do you grapple with the fact that most everyone uses energy, but only a minority ride bikes. Seems teh "common good" argument is against your position here.

  4. Cory, we could use Steve's argument here: a majority of people don't have the opportunity to ride because of a lack of facilities.

    Only a minority of people go to school so we should close them.

    Only a minority of people commit crime so we should just let them go.

    We can twist this around any way you want.


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