Three Columbia County committees have voted this past month to proceed with the so-called Porreca Plan for the Ghent airport. Yet one lone supervisor, Mike Benson of New Lebanon, is continuing his Baghdad Bob dead-ender routine, trying to extend a process in which he has barely participated (and in fact tried to short-circuit at its outset).
Despite missing more than 70% of his airport committee meetings, Benson continues to fire salvos from the virtual safety of his computer keyboard. In a Wednesday email, Benson railed against the use of eminent domain, calling it “a trampling of constitutional vested property rights and the eventual destruction of an enterprise.”
But any supervisor who harbors an ideological objection to eminent domain had a golden opportunity to vote their conscience in October 2013.
That’s when Art Bassin introduced a resolution to table the use of eminent domain in its negotiations with Meadowgreens. Supervisor Benson voted against that resolution, thus continuing the eminent domain process—despite a lack of research and data at the time about its potential impact.
As Mr. Bassin noted at the time, Mr. Benson’s vote was a vote “against getting the facts before deciding to proceed with the eminent domain process … based on incomplete and possibly inaccurate information.”
Ironically, having voted for eminent domain based on incomplete information, then attempting to cut the Airport Committee’s investigations short, and finally ignoring the extensive research gathered in that process, Benson suddenly acts troubled by the possibility of using eminent domain. Having tried to get the committee to go into Executive Session to end its deliberations during the first meeting, he now thunders that further investigations need to continue—and pretends as if the burning questions he wants answered were not answered—when he was absent. Is he playing dumb, or has he remained willfully ignorant of all that has transpired across nearly a dozen meetings?
Regarding the Constitutionlity of eminent domain, many people of different ideological stripes agree that it should be used sparingly. But the battle over its legitimacy is pretty much done.
The governmental power to acquire private lands when necessary for a public purpose has been legitimized repeatedly by the Supreme Court, across many different eras, by justices appointed by both Republicans and Democrats. Most recently, the use of eminent domain to serve important public purposes was upheld in the sweeping Kelo v. City of New London case before the Supreme Court, decided in 2005. Cornell has a decent summary of the decision here.
Benson, interestingly enough, has lost at least one lawsuit challenging government’s regulatory authority, this one involving a project by his company, BCI Construction, in Loudonville. According to the Times-Union,
Benson argued in the lawsuit that the town’s action did not follow its own rules and violated a vested right in the property he had obtained. Justice Eugene P. Devine rejected every argument and dismissed the lawsuit earlier this month.
Moreover, as Mr. Bassin has pointed out, and as those who actually attended the meetings have come to understand, the acquisition of easements to enforce existing FAA regulation already in place, is far less intrusive a “taking” than forcing the sale of 15 acres outright —or, as Mr. Benson now seems to prefer, taking the entire 95 acres from Mr. Nero.
One notes with further irony, regarding the rights and interests of business, that Mr. Benson’s preferred option would actually shut down a popular business, described by some as the most affordable place to golf in the County. The New Lebanon Supervisor does not seem to realize, or perhaps does not care, that government seizing the entire property is far more transgressive than paying the owner for easements on a small portion to remove tall trees, allowing owner Carmen Nero to retain ownership.
(The vehement yet inconsistent positions taken by a few hold-outs almost force one to wonder if they belong to some competing club which hopes to poach Meadowgreens’ membership.)