Saturday, November 24, 2007

Andrew Price On Eminent Domain

Land use, development, and eminent domain are hot topics in Pocahontas County these days. Pick up any issue of The Pocahontas Times for the last several years, and you will read something about the controversial Slaty Fork sewage treatment plant. The latest issue (November 22, 2007) contains this report on the County Commission meeting:

...[T]he Pocahontas County Public Service District is now asking for money to evaluate alternative sites for the controversial regional sewage project in Slaty Fork....Much of the motivation for moving the site comes from the specter of eminent domain, Smith said, which has made the project unpopular with many county residents. The current site proposed by engineers sits on property belonging to members of Slaty Fork's Sharp family....Tom Shipley and his family have said they don't want the plant on their land and have challenged the project on environmental grounds and the threat that it could pose to their family business.

Although you can't search or read back issues of The Pocahontas Times unless you pay, you can learn more about the proposed sewage treatment plant at Save the Sharp Farm and 8 Rivers Safe Development. While they address family, environmental and historic preservation reasons for preserving the Sharp farm, they don't come down hard on the issue of using taxpayers' money to build and/or clean up a utility that primarily benefits out-of-state interests: the vacation home developers and Snowshoe Resort. (Oops, my point of view is showing.)

Because so many people are so offended by the prospect of eminent domain in this case, I was surprised to learn that Andrew Price used the Pocahontas Times to advocate eminent domain to assist the outside railroad/logging interests, and facilitated condemnation proceedings in his law practice. These quotes come from Benign Betrayal: Capitalist Intervention in Pocahontas County, West Virginia, 1890-1910By John Hennen.

As legal representative for several timber and railway companies doing business in the county, Price often participated in the transfer of land titles and condemnation proceedings to the benefit of his clients....[He] felt obliged to convince Pocahontas Times readers that land was more valuable to the community when it rested with timber companies than in the hands of private citizens. Tax payments on the land, even if unproductive, he explained, benefited the community and relieved the previous owners of hidden burdens:

The Greenbrier River Lumber Company's tax ticket in Pocahontas for the year 1898 amounts to $1539.36. This is tax on timberland which is unremunerative. It is a great help to the county treasury. Formerly this tax was divided among smaller landowners who did not realize how much their wild land was costing them. This is still true of the greater part of the county.

Regardless of the efforts of Price and other local elites, some citizens resisted the encroachment of industrial capitalism. Resistance to development could take the form of a landowner refusing to acknowledge the right-of-way prerogative of railroads, for compensation, through private land. County courts often convened special hearings for right-of-way disputes, where the mechanism was in place to protect the interests of big capital. County judges and court officers were by 1900 usually professionals or businessmen whose economic well-being was linked to development. If persuasion "proved ineffective, resistance could be overcome by the alliance between capitalists and local promoters. Courts simply condemned land and required that it be sold to the railroad."

Price advised his readers on the wisdom of settling condemnation proceedings out-of-court, warning them against being greedy and of hidden costs in a lost condemnation judgement. "Some of the prices asked by landowners are too high," he wrote in 1899. "The rule is when a private contract can not be agreed upon for the condemnation proceedings to be initiated. If the landowner recovers less than the amount proffered by the company, he pays the costs, and vice versa."

It seems that Andrew Price came to regret the price of progress, whether or not he admitted his own complicity. I hope we have learned from what happened with the logging boom. The prosperity was transient--where are those high-paying jobs today? Meanwhile, some environmental damage has scarred over, but the forest has fewer species, and no giant trees. I'm afraid the "tourism industry" will turn out the same--some short-term profit at the expense of long-term environmental degradation.

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