Sierra Club: The Planet--1996
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The Planet
It's 1996: Do You Know Where Your Takings Bill Is?

State of the States

  • Washington: Which Word Didn't You Understand?
  • West Virginia: We Told You So!
  • North Carolina: Pigs, Fish, Irony
  • Michigan: Club Goes to Court
  • New York: Giving It to Takers
  • California: As the Worm Turns

That said, Sierra Club activists have been highly effective exterminators. Since 1992, in fact, only 18 states have passed even modest takings bills, despite consideration by all 50 legislatures. Most of the 18 bills on the books are indeed modest, falling into the category of "look before you leap" -- that is, they do little more than ensure that state agencies take care not to breach existing Constitutional law and precedent on takings. Only a handful of states -- Texas, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana and (depending on who's interpreting the statutes) North Dakota and Utah -- have enacted bills that redefine huge chunks of government activity as takings of private property, and require citizens either to live with pollution or to pay polluters dearly to cease and desist. The vast majority of states have had better sense.

Here's a representative (and by no means comprehensive) sampling of the current "takings" scene:

Washington: Which Word Didn't You Understand?

On Election Day '95, three of every five Washington state voters rejected Referendum 48, the nation's most radical takings proposal. Valuing the concerns of thousands of citizen volunteers (including hundreds of Sierra Club members) over the anecdotal "horror stories" hatched by developers and logging firms, the people of Washington said, quite simply, no.

But words of one syllable are beyond the grasp of some legislators. Even before the '96 session began, state representatives were back with new models of Referendum 48. Thankfully, state senators seem more interested in listening to their constituents on both sides of the issue. If all goes well, a Senate bill could solve some very real problems by making the regulatory system fairer and allowing land owners more flexibility -- while actually improving environmental standards.

West Virginia: We Told You So!

West Virginia survived a takings battle in 1994. Before a watered-down bill was finally passed, environmentalists circulated an Atlanta Constitution editorial warning that takings bills would undermine zoning laws, with the result that strip joints could crop up beside churches and schools. Although some called it fear-mongering, history has proved the editorial right. A new strip club did recently open next to a church and school; when irate neighbors demanded the club be closed, the owner insisted they "buy him out." One takings advocate is now pushing legislation to ban such clubs within a mile of a church or school, but is having difficulty explaining whether taxpayers should compensate the strip-joint operators.

North Carolina: Pigs, Fish, Irony

Republican state Rep. John Nichols, who unsuccessfully sponsored takings legislation in 1995, has dropped that misguided effort. Instead he's developing a legislative package to clean up the Neuse River in his district. Over 10 million fish died in the river last year due to pollution from a number of probable sources, including agricultural and golf course runoff, municipal sewage by-pass, and factory hog farm runoff. Nichols has been hearing from his constituents about shoals of dead fish on their riverbanks and the absence of live fish for their lines. Had his takings bill passed last year, his hands would have been tied.

Michigan: Club Goes to Court

The Sierra Club's Mackinac Chapter and four other environmental groups are seeking an emergency state Supreme Court review in a case that pits protection of some 4,500 acres of wild Lake Michigan sand dunes, forests and wetlands against the designs of oil and gas speculators. Last October, word broke of secret efforts by Gov. John Engler (R) to pay out $90 million to settle an ongoing takings claim by oil and gas interests seeking to drill in the Nordhouse Dunes. In lieu of this massive, precedent-setting taxpayer ripoff, environmentalists hope to force the state to make polluting industries comply with its Environmental Protection Act -- and not to back down in the face of phony "takings" threats.

New York: Giving It to Takers

New York State is home to several national takings advocacy groups, one of which, the Property Rights Foundation of America, staged its first annual conference last October. Founder Carol Lograsse cut her teeth opposing land-use protections in Adirondack Park; now, banking on the help of friends in the new congressional leadership and the new Republican governor, George Pataki, she clearly has high hopes for the future.

The Club's Hudson-Mohawk Group viewed the conference -- featuring California's species-endangering congressman, Stockton Republican Richard Pombo, as a speaker -- as an opportunity for environmental activism. Their visible presence focused media attention on the controversies arising from the takings movement.

California: As the Worm Turns

Four potentially devastating takings bills, two in each house, were introduced during the 1995 California legislative session. Mercifully, however, they died, because the judiciary committees in both the Assembly and the Senate were dominated by Democrats opposed to takings legislation. However, on Jan. 4, 1996, Democrats lost control of the Assembly after 24 years. The resulting wholesale changes in committee makeup could mean the bills will pass the lower chamber this year. Environmentalists hope -- and are working to ensure -- that the Senate will continue to resist their passage.

To stay current on what's happening with takings legislation in your state, contact your local chapter.

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