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Saturday, October 31, 2009

Blog Brings Neighborly Conversation: David Pitts Sets Record Straight

One of the greatest merits of blogging is that it gets me into conversations that might never otherwise happen... often with people who vigorously disagree with me. Sometimes that conversation happens online, sometimes off.

Sometimes it's a two-and-a-half-hour conversation with a fellow Lake County resident whose language I have called "selfish, inconsistent, and at least unneighborly if not insulting."

David Pitts called Thursday evening.

From the top: Mr. Pitts called to ensure that at least two issues were straightened out:
  1. Contrary to the characterization I gave in my original article on the bike trail the city wants to build across the land he farms on the southwest edge of Madison, David Pitts and his wife Gloria do not live in or by Ramona. They lived up in that neck of the woods for a long time, and Mrs. Pitts was postmaster in Ramona, but a year or so ago, they moved into Madison. David Pitts is a taxpaying resident of the city that wants a piece of his farm land.
  2. Mr. Pitts also felt I dismissed his arguments against the bike trail and said he should have just said no. (I believe he may be referencing this passage from my Oct. 22 post: "I have deep sympathy for arguments in defense of personal property. If Mr. Pitts wishes to simply say, "It's my land, and I don't want to sell," that's fine.") Mr. Pitts emphasized that he had already told the powers that be "No" to this project five times—six, if you count the open house we both attended last week.
Mr. Pitts and I have lived in the same county for my whole life. He's my dad's age; his son Gary graduated from Madison HS a year before I did. It took this long for the two of us to end up in the same room last week, two feet apart over the same maps. But even there, David and I didn't talk. He had more important people at whom to direct his questions and concerns than a strange skinny guy with a backpack. I went to the meeting to listen, not argue. I checked my rebuttive urges until I had slept on what I'd heard a couple nights. Then I published a pretty stern critique that I knew wouldn't go down well with some readers.

Mr. Pitts said he was pretty steamed when a copy of the text reached him. When the phone rang and he introduced himself, I was ready for steam and checking my own valves. But we never got hot with each other. For two and a half hours, we had a perfectly neighborly and serious conversation about property rights, farming, bike trails, and local government.

Mr. Pitts and I still disagree on the value of a bike trail. I've given my reasons; let me give Mr. Pitts's view some air time so we all—including some of the folks who are more committed to building this bike trail than I am—can better understand where he's coming from.

Mr. Pitts has lived in this county all his life, just like me. His great-grandfather homesteaded here back in 1880, beating my forebears to this turf by a good 60+ years. He says he wants to see the land he has in this county remain in the family. He has at least as much reason for attachment to his patches of Lake County as I have to mine.

Mr. Pitts has honest concerns about the mingling of recreation and industrial agriculture. He sustains his land and productivity with heavy equipment and big chemicals. The big sprayer drivers and the crop dusters are as stingy as they can be with those expensive chemicals, but there will always be some drift. Right now, Mr. Pitts sees the fenceline, ditch, and raised roadway as a reasonable buffer to harm to passersby. Invite them onto the other side of that ditch on a ribbon of asphalt, and Mr. Pitts says his effective operating area will be reduced much more than the width of the trail and a flat strip of grass next to it.

(I did suggest going organic; Mr. Pitts said it would take too long to cycle the land into alternative production methods and turn a profit again.)

I haven't seen case law to justify Mr. Pitts's concerns about his liability for injuries on a trail crossing his land (and I'm reading up on SDCL 20-9 to see if it applies). But Mr. Pitts's concerns are reinforced by a grim experience on his land 22 years ago. His son went hunting with a couple other boys. Those other boys were walking the creek bed, one on each side, while Mr. Pitts's son waited at the end of the creek. A pheasant flew between the two walkers. One boy turned, shot from the hip.

There were 110 pellets in the shell that boy fired. The doctor took 97 pellets out of the other boy.

Mr. Pitts's liability insurance paid for the boy's medical bills. He was thankful worse didn't happen. But his insurer told him that, if he had charged a fee for the use of his land, his liability would have been much greater. So now, when the city asks him to accept payment for a recreational trail on his land, he puts two and two together and gets a concern informed by grim experience about having to pay for others' accidents.

Now as a businessman, Mr. Pitts could probably find out what the additional cost of liability insurance might be to cover the additional use his land would experience with a bike trail on it. He could add that to an estimate of the bushels of corn or beans lost to a 3-6 acre strip of pavement and grass. He would then have a good picture of what the city would have to offer to make the trail easement worth his while.

But interestingly, the city and other organizers have not once made a formal offer. No officials have told Mr. Pitts what the city will be willing to pay for the privilege of laying a trail on his land. In his dealings with the city, Mr. Pitts has gotten the distinct feeling that the city is more like a bully than a partner or the entity whose bills he pays with his taxes.

Cases in point: When the first proposal for a trail to Lake Herman started floating around a few years ago, Mr. Pitts says a trail organizer asked if they could sit down and discuss the plan over coffee. Mr. Pitts said he could do that some time... but he didn't hear anything else on the topic until a county commission meeting that considered applying for the grant to build the trail. Mr. Pitts says trail supporters considered circulating a petition seeking support to obtain land for the trail "by any means necessary" even before making any straightforward financial offers to landowners like him.

Mr. Pitts also notes that, as he understood it, the federal grant eventually obtained to trail up the neighborhood was designated for a trail along Highway 34. However (and this is all grapevine and no documentation, but I'm giving Mr. Pitts his say here), he heard that some of the bigger businesses along Highway 34 west of town didn't want the trail crossing their lots, and the city backed off that plan. So Mr. Pitts can't help getting the feeling that the city is just shopping around for little guys like him to push around.

His experience with the surveyors this spring didn't inspire any further confidence in our city leaders. With little warning, Mr. Pitts received a letter from Ulteig Engineering saying they would be coming onto his land to survey along the creek for a possible trail. Having just put in his wheat, Mr. Pitts was not eager to have surveyors tearing through his field on a four-wheeler. He called Ulteig, expressed his opposition, and apparently got them to call off the survey.

Soon afterward, however, he received another letter, this one from Madison's city attorney, Mr. Jencks, saying surveyors would be entering his land under statutory authority. Mr. Pitts couldn't remember the statute number in our conversation, but he says that when he showed his lawyer the letter, the lawyer looked up the law and found it dealt with abandoned mines and still required owner permission. Another phone call, another cancellation... but this time not before marking flags had been set in Mr. Pitts's field. Those flags are on wires. Leave one in the field, and it will run right through the combine and into the straw. Feed that straw to livestock, have a cow chaw down that wire, and that wire could kill the animal. Mr. Pitts thus spent some extra time in the field picking up flags to make sure what he sees as an unauthorized entry on his land didn't also result in the loss of a valuable critter.

Given what Mr. Pitts told me Thursday night, it's not hard to construct a narrative where, far from being the bad guy, Mr. Pitts is the average little guy, just trying to make a living and keep his land for himself and his kids while the powers that be—powers who wages he's paid for years with his sales tax and now property tax dollars—try to push him around.

So maybe we can understand a little better why Mr. Pitts might be inclined to offer some stiff resistance to a plan that could lead to the city taking his land. And in the face of such resistance, maybe we'll have to accept a compromise and live with widening the county road for a less-than-ideal but better-than-current bike route.

That's a discussion we as a community need to have. The best decisions will come from an open, above-board discussion where everyone, including David Pitts, gets a say.


  1. Christine Nelson10/31/2009 9:19 AM

    As a woman with farm blood running through her veins, I would never willingly give over land to Madison city. That was a crazy story. Sorta makes me want to retire where the crazy militia people live. At least they'd understand it was my land.

  2. Oh brother. Talk about confusing principles, emotions, policy and thought. First, the land belongs to the sovereign - I and other "landowners" merely have title exclusive right for conditional first use. The government (We the People) can take it for public purpose. There was no taking for public purpose in the hunting tragedy. Second, once taken for public purpose the landowner has no liability. Are any landowners liable for accidents they formerly controlled in the Highway 34, Highway 81, I-29 or Mickelson Trail rights of way? Of course not.

    John Kelley


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