Business Section

Saturday, October 2, 1999

Editorial - Property Rights Observed in Breach

Bernalillo County Commissioner Ken Sanchez cast a lonely vote to uphold property rights this week.

His colleagues Steve Gallegos, Les Houston, and Tom Rutherford ordered the county manager to proceed with the condemnation of the old Jones Motor Co. building at Central and Wellesley SE. The commission majority covets the Nob Hill landmark for a community cultural center.

Governments generally resort to hostile takeovers of private property when there is an unwilling seller.  In this instance, the county was an unwilling buyer - or at least a lethargic one.

The owners, meanwhile, were not only willing but anxious to cash out - and did at a price much better than what the county belatedly offered.

Now the new owners - who bargained in good faith to restore an architectural jewel, keep it on the tax rolls and expand their business and payroll - face the additional expense of fighting seizure of the property by the county.

Condemantion of private property is the atomic bomb of local governments, a tool to be used as a last resort in pursuit of an overriding public interest.

Such an interest is obvious in public works projects where engineering factors dictate a specific location or when a holdout owner hopes to extract a ransom after the bulk of land has been acquired at reasonable prices from willing sellers.

But to condemn the property when the county dropped the ball on acquiring it through conventional

negotiation serves no public interest that overrides the new owners' property rights, particularly if there are alternative sites for the planned cultural center.

Indeed the stubborn pursuit of Jones Motor Co. building smells less like public service than the personal vengeance of frustrated commissioners.

That would represent not only abuse of the last-resort power of condemnation, but an abuse of office.