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Thursday, October 22, 2009

Landowner Bashes Bicyclists, Burbles Baloney at Bike Trail Meeting

Madison's recreation trail committee held an open house for residents to learn about the proposed route for a new bicycle trail to Lake Herman. The new trail would run west from Flynn Field along Silver Creek in the south part of Madison. The trail would cross Highland Avenue near Gehl, run south to the old NFO corner, then cross the road and run straight west to the state park entrance. (No formal plans yet to add the full 7.5-mile Lake Herman Loop... but I'm working on that!)

About 30 of us (I think Chuck might have included the engineers and local officials in his count) gathered in Madison's fire hall for the meeting to study the maps and ask questions of the patient engineers from Ulteig.

I say patient because the engineers had to stand through a fair amount of old-guy crabbing and small-town politicking. I heard one gentleman reciting his decades-old grievances about selling his land in southwest Madison for dirt cheap so Gehl could get built and then geting surprise bills for curb and gutter. The gentleman's point was a general assertion about not trusting the city on projects like this. The engineers listened politely and nodded as they eagerly awaited some actual engineering questions.

More bothersome to my ear were the protestations of David Pitts, who drives down from Ramona to farm the 150-some acres he owns across the road from Gehl and Madison's southwest corner. The proposed route would slice maybe three acres off that cropland. Pitts was a vocal opponent of a previous push to build a rec trail to Lake Herman, and he's renewing his protests over this effort.

I want to sympathize with Mr. Pitts's concern for his property rights. However, much of what I heard him say Tuesday night was, frankly, bull.

Pitts told the engineers (who again, did a lot of patient listening to matters that aren't their job to deal with) that he can't stop his combine on a dime to avoid a bike trail. His point is that he's going to lose a lot more cropland than the ten-foot ribbon of asphalt will take up. If I recall the map correctly, there would be a ten-foot easement next to the trail.

But if I recall correctly, when my wife and I rode the bicycle trail from the Lewis and Clark campground in to Yankton this summer, we found corn pretty close to the trail. Perhaps Pitts can drive down to Yankton for lessons on precision tractor driving.

Pitts told the engineers that it just doesn't make sense to situate recreation next to industry (industry meaning David Pitts). What Pitts fails to acknowledge is that recreation is also an industry, one on which our Chamber of Commerce stakes pretty big hopes (the town logo features a sailboat, not a combine). A bike trail to Lake Herman State park would be a key part of our local tourism industry, encouraging campers and day-tourists to come to Madison, ride and roller-blade around, and spend money. Infrastructure doesn't have to support big trucks to support business. (Read more on the value of recreation and public facilities in the city's comprehensive plan, Chapter 6.)

Pitts told the engineers that originally the city had proposed laying a bike trail along Highway 34, as evidenced by the little strip of trail out by Prairie Village on the old roadway. He seemed to say the city should go back to that plan. Never mind, of course, that a bike trail along Highway 34 would pass through even more industrial land, crossing driveways and taking up parking and workspace for Lake County International, Twin Lakes Veterinary, East River Electric, Tires Tires Tires, and several other businesses. Pitts doesn't really think it's a bad idea to have recreation next to industry or even a whole bunch of industries; he just doesn't want it near his single industry.

Pitts expressed his general disdain for bicyclists (and, I assume, anyone he might see dawdling about on a recreation trail), saying that "anyone who's got time to sit on a bicycle" has got time to take some longer route—i.e., some route not on his land. There were other implications in his tone of voice, the kind of implication that says, "I'm an important citizen, and you other guys aren't."

It is with difficulty that I restrict myself to noting that Mr. Pitts's characterization of bicyclists misses the point that many such individuals who have time for recreation also have money to spend. They'll buy drinks and ice cream in town. They'll buy gas and tires for their campers. They'll buy bikes and kiddie trailers and rollerblades and windbreakers and other sales-taxable gear. They'll rent campsites and motel rooms to come spend time in a town that offers a wealth of recreation opportunities.

Mr. Pitts also misses the point that even folks without a lot of disposable income can benefit greatly from a free recreational facility like a bike trail. Rich or poor, families can take their kids out for a walk or a tricycle ride on a summer evening, away from the dust and noise of trucks on the highway.

Mr. Pitts clearly thinks recreation doesn't deserve any favors from his industry. Of course, Mr. Pitts's industry benefits from the generosity of a community (and a state) that exempts some of his clearly commercial vehicles from commerical vehicle licensing laws. He might not be in a good position to protest "favoring" one industry over another.

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. But when he manufactures arguments against public infrastructure couched in selfish, inconsistent, and at least unneighborly if not insulting language, he doesn't help his case.

Update 2009.11.02: Count on the blog to spark neighborly conversation: David Pitts called me last week, and we had a good 2+ hour discussion. Read his take on the story, complete with his suggestion that the city has been a less-than-straight shooter.


  1. We used to make that trek quite often on our bikes. A trail would be wonderful!

  2. I assume this proposed path only crosses Pitts' land going south to the NFO corner, is this right? Why not run the path straight south from Flynn Field and cross the road there and run the path on the south side of the bypass? This wouldn't affect Pitts at all. If you want a path along the river in town, just make a short bike trail there that ends before the highway. There have to be other options than just one.

    It really was not necessary to go after Pitts simply because he does not want to give up any of his land that he owns. And eminent domain should not apply here. if this path does not work, look for other options. I'm sure there are some.

  3. I completely understand the opinion of David Pitts even though I like the idea of a bike path. His land is valuable as farm ground. That bike path we want will make his land worth less in the future when it can be converted to commercial development.

    There is also the matter of security. How many people will wander off the bike trail onto his property?

  4. Bzzzz: wrong on both counts, Michael:

    1. The bike path will increase the land resale value. Whatever businesses might move in, should they want to expand out into a flood plain, will have access to a bike path that can bring customers and workers another way to get to their door.

    2. Security: yeah, like how sidewalks are a public hazard by inviting people to tromp around neighbors' yards? What is the security hazard: that bicyclists are going to steal the inedible corn Pitts grows?

  5. Part 1:

    If you have deep sympathy for arguments in defense of personal property, why have you not let the issue go? Just by reading your article, it was cemented in my mind that the property is owned by Mr. Pitts, and he does not wish to sell. You accuse him of being selfish and inconsistent in his arguments against the rec trail. You accuse him of using unneighborly and insulting language. If you were to look honestly and objectively at your article, you would see your unneighborly and insulting language. If you were truly honest, you would see selfishness and inconsistencies in your arguments.

    I do think that an extended recreational trail could be a valuable asset to the community. I think we should explore options that do not violate property rights. If that means negotiating alternate routes, so be it. With that said, to move forward with the proposed trail when a property owner asserts his rights, is at best unethical, and in this particular case, unwise.

    There was a time in America when a simple assertion of "rule of law" was enough to end a dispute. In this case it appears to be quite clear; Mr. Pitts owns that property and evidently does not wish to surrender his property to a recreational trail. Eminent Domain should not apply in this case. I have a feeling that those who wish to seize Mr. Pitts's land will underhandedly misuse that clause. We must be vigilant against the bastardization of Eminent Domain. It should be utilized only in cases of public needs, not public wants. The argument should end there. But these days, apparently, that is not enough. Mr. Pitts is understandably forced to use every argument at his disposal to dissuade those who wish to seize his land. Right and wrong just never seems to be justification for some people.

    I can see excellent, common sense arguments for not surrendering his land. With ever an ever-increasing need for food and fuel, why would anyone surrender an ever-decreasing necessity such as arable land for the luxury of a recreational trail? As a property owner, why would you open yourself up to the high liability inherent in a situation such as a rec trail next to cropland? I own a house in town. The city owns the boulevard between my property and the road. On that strip of property, I am forced by the city, under penalty of law, to clear and maintain their sidewalk and mow their grass. I am also forced to be liable for any accident and/or injury that results from my neglect to maintain their property. Why would Mr. Pitts willingly subject himself to the massive liability inherent with this proposed plan? It would be insane! What about the risk of debris on the trail? Have you ever seen the cob and stalk chunks that are spit out the back of a combine? What about the inhalation risk when herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers are applied or when they evaporate? Because of the proximity, who would be liable if an asthmatic child inhales those chemicals at those concentrations and dies? Would his remaining land become less valuable as farmland because no one wants to inherit these liabilities? If he were to rezone the land, would anyone buy in a floodplain? Only an ignorant fool would accept those kinds of risks and liabilities!

    You claim to be sympathetic on property right assertions. However, in your article, you state, "The proposed route would slice maybe three acres off that cropland." Amazing! It is so easy to give other people's things away! You are colorfully enthusiastic when it comes to asserting your property rights against trespassers and vandals. I don't understand why you wouldn't afford Mr. Pitts the courtesy of defending his rights.

    Continued… JLB

  6. Part 2:

    Cory, I do not think you are a bad guy. Even though we disagree on some issues, I think your blog is a good source for local news stories. I do think you need to learn to keep your passion in check. I realize this issue is near and dear to you. However, you seriously destroy your credibility when you let your emotions overtake you like that. I do not know Mr. Pitts well, but from what I have seen of him, he seems to be an honorable, productive, law-abiding citizen. Understand that he is scared of the possibility of losing everything he worked hard to build and give to his children, over a potential liability suit. Understand that he will feel violated if his property is taken against his will by the very government that he funds.

    Admittedly, I was not privy to all that was said by both sides in this matter. But from what I read in your article, I think you owe Mr. Pitts an apology.

    If need be, I will proudly stand shoulder to shoulder with Mr. Pitts to help him defend his property rights. Cory, even though we have disagreements, I would do the same for you under similar circumstances. We are Americans first.

    Jason Lee Bjorklund

  7. Apology? For disagreeing with his selfishness and his dismissive attitudes toward cyclists? I decline.

  8. I'm of the impression that liability is a red herring here. Adjoining landowners have no maintenance responsibility (e.g. clearing snow) as howeowners do with adjoining sidewalks. Now if Mr. Pitts engages in deliberate sabotage of the trail, similar to his obstructionist efforts to stop surveyors from entering the right of way to do their jobs to get information for the trail plans, that's his problem.

    I do agree that we should pursue every alternative to eminent domain that we can. Mr. Pitts should get a fair price for his land. I do not like forcing anyone to engage in a market transaction. But Mr. Pitts made clear that he doesn't care about the property rights of anyone else. If the city were proposing to run through the front yards of Laser Cut, Nicky's, Tires, East River, etc., I get the very distinct impression that he wouldn't say a word. He's not fighting for principle; he's being selfish. Now granted, selfishness has legal protection... but I'm not obligated to celebrate it.

    I am open to every argument you are making, Jason, about the possible net benefit of using the land for crop production. Of course, Mr. Pitts himself talked about the sale value of his land, suggesting that he intends at some point to cash in by selling his acreage for commercial development and thus taking that whole quarter section out of production, so I wouldn't resort to that food/fuel argument unless you plan to argue against any non-ag development of that land.

    At the same time, I remain open arguments about the potential benefit the trail would provide to the entire county.

    I will not vote lightly to take a way a man's property. I don't need a bike trail; even if the trail is built, I'll still be biking to town on the highway. But a recreation trail does offer health, cultural, and economic benefits. The social good is not absolute... but neither are personal property rights.

    [And let's remember: just as Mr. Pitts dismissed bicyclists as time-wasters, he'll probably scoff at the two of us who have time to discuss these issues on the Internet.]

  9. I am being accused of a red herring? Cute! To profit from diverting your attention, I would have to have a vested interest to divert from. There is no ulterior motive. This is purely a principled discusion. I have no vested interest in the matter other than to reassert the notion of property rights. Red herring... "Methinks he doth protest too much."

    I believe liability is a very serious issue. We are a litigious society in the grips of a recession. The "American Lottery" is a very serious threat. (Granted, I think people around here are generally more honest than people in the rest of the country.) Who is reponsible for clearing the cob and stalk chunks off of the path? Debris will cause a potential trip hazzard. Agricultural chemicals are hazardous materials. They are absolutely deadly. You must wear a respirator and rubber gloves when handling them. The toxicity generally diminishes as they dry, but until then they can pose a deadly inhalation hazard.

    As for obstructing surveyors, I would too. Before they entered my property I would require them to reveal the laws granting them authority to be there. I would then carefully review them. In all but rare cases, I consider personal property rights to be absolute.

    As far as Mr. Pitts being willing to stand up for other's property rights, I cannot speak to that. I do not know. I would hope he would fight for others' rights, regardless, it is a moot point. Whether he would or wouldn't does not in any way diminish his property rights. There are those who will not serve in the military to secure the blessings of liberty, yet still demand the benefit of those sacrifices. Quite frankly, sometimes your arguements make my ears bleed, but I would never allow you to be forced into silence.

    I will not argue the potential value of a recreation trail. I wouldn't want any property rights violated and I would prefer to see the money raised through fundraising, endowments, or other private means. I think tax dollars would be better spent on necessities not luxuries. We need to ween ourselves from the sour milk of the Federal Tit.

    Jason Lee Bjorklund

  10. Whoa -- that red herring paragraph made no sense. Mr. Pitts has a clear vested interest. Liability is his red herring.

    "methinks..." My vested interest, as indicated above, is minimal. The proposed route provides me with little direct benefit. It does not provide me with a shorter route to ride to town or an immediate means to secure income. My interest coincides with the general interest in promoting recreation, tourism, and healthy exercise. Social interest.

    Let's talk reality. Cite one instance where a user of a recreation trail like what we are proposing has successfully sued an adjoining landowner for liability. There are hundreds of miles of similar trails passing farmland in Minnesota and Iowa. There are plenty of bicyclists who travel other public rights of way past farm fields where such hazardous chemicals are used. I agree we live in a litigious society. There have been much crazier lawsuits; it should be quite easy for you to find one example of a lawsuit demonstrating that the liability issues you speak of are a genuine concern.

    If you would obstruct surveyors, you too would be inviolation of the law.

    Sorry, Jason, personal property rights are not absolute. I don't think even the Founding Fathers will back you up on that one. And Mr. Pitts doesn't care if prinicple backs him up: at the meeting, he sounded like a sophist, appealing to whatever argument was available to obtain what he wants. That's why he recommended taking land from people on Highway 34 for the project instead of from himself. Your language tells me you would stand up for other people's rights, on principle. Mr. Pitts's language did not. (By the way, Mr. Pitts, you are welcome to elaborate on your comments here and prove me wrong.)

    [The federal trough: indeed, the money the city has to spend on this project came from a federal handout. If you can convince the city, county, and state to stop seeking federal dollars for any purpose at all and rely solely on local funding sources for every projcet we need and want, more power to you. Run for office on that platform next year. Argue hard for turning down every federal handout. I would welcome an open and vigorous discussion on that topic among our citizens in the 2010 election.]

  11. Steve Sibson10/25/2009 8:14 PM


    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.

  12. My appologies for the confusing "red herring" paragraph. I knew the denotative meaning of the word and was unaware of the connotative meaning. In the denotative sense, I had absolutely nothing to gain by throwing you off of my trail. The crux of my agrument was and still is, property rights. While I still believe liability is an important aspect, it was a peripheral argument. The drumbeat of my argument was and still is... property rights and want vs. need.

    In reponse to your question of sucessful personal injury lawsuits against adjacent landowners by recreational trail users, I technically came up short... using those narrow terms. However, there were numerous lawsuits in related areas. Railroads have numerous out of court settlements with rec trail users from paths that run parallel to and across the railroad right of way. (Apparently out east, they love to run bike paths along railroad beds.) I can find numerous property damage lawsuits on adjacent property chemical drifts. I found a few lawsuits on health issues related to incidental contact of pesticides by farm workers and second-hand contact by their children. (Actually, I did find one where a farmworker died while [coincidentally] riding a bicycle to work the day after he was directly sprayed by a pesticide. It was not drift, he was directly sprayed.)

    In regards to absolute property rights, while I was searching for lawsuits, I googled "absolute property rights" because I could not understand how we didn't agree. I now know. Some people defined absolute property rights with arguments of a man leaglly raping a woman because she was on his property and other asinine logic like that. Please afford me the opporitunity to clarify my property right beliefs. I believe in the Castle Doctorine, and the similar "Stand Your Ground" legislation. I believe in the objective arguments of property securing our rights. (Ayn Rand does an excellent job arguing that point.) I generally disdain Emininent Domain unless it is truly restricted to the enumerated powers granted by the constitution. Speaking of the constitution, I absolutely believe in the Fourth Amendment. I am open to common sense building codes. I do not think my views on property rights are unreasonable.

    As far as the federal trough, I realize you like federal money and frequently argue that we get more than we pay in... but that is other peoples' money that has been seized by the federal government. Those dollars also come with federal strong-arming.

    Since we are on the topic of federal money. The DOT takes 10% of the revenue collected by the federal gasoline tax and funnels it into projects such as off-road recreational facilities. In the mean time, our highways and bridges are neglected. Does this seem right? (It was rhetorical... don't bother answering that.)

    At any rate, I go back over-the-road tomorrow. I will not have the time, nor energy to keep this discussion going. It was enjoyable having this spirited, yet civil, discussion with you. Take care and good luck on the five-laner!

    Jason Lee Bjorklund

  13. Sibby, your first sentence identifies a potential contradiction with which I have been grappling. Please note that I have not said I support using eminent domain to obtain the easement for the bike trail. I remain committed to property rights. Notice also that my arguments in favor of the bike trail have been much less about "radical environmental" ideology and much more about potential economic benefits for the community (tourism, sales tax dollars, etc.).

    What I'm taking issue with right now is the inconsistency and selfishness in Mr. Pitts's arguments.

    If Pitts won't sell, and if the city does resort to eminent domain, I will have to take a hard look at the pros and cons before I decide whether I will support such a move. TransCanada was a private company using eminent domain to take private property for a project that would enrich one private corporation, with no direct benefit to the landowner or the surrounding community. This bike trail is a public project, offering direct and lasting benefits to the community... at the expense of the loss of productivity of a few acres. And even with that public benefit, I'm still not convinced that taking would be justified.

  14. Civil and spirited: my kind of conversation. Keep it between the ditches, Jason! Have a good drive.

    Folks should note that, by acknowledging the legitimacy of the Fourth Amendment and building codes, Jason agrees that property rights are not absolute. The community may impose limitations on individual use of property for the good of the community.

    Lawsuits: my point is made. There are no specific instances that justify the claims that the bike trail will represent a liability threat to adjoining landowners.


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