Editorial: Silverthorne’s tricky ballot question
August 6, 2012
Silverthorne voters have a simple yes/no ballot question to consider in a special election this month. Behind it all, though, is a rather complex series of circumstances that’s led to the citizen-led initiative to get the question before voters in the first place. Some see it simply as a referendum on the Blue River Trail the town is trying to complete through the community, and they believe a “yes” vote is a vote against the trail, while a “no” vote is one in favor.
That’s not entirely true. While it’s fair to say the ballot question about eminent domain facing voters had its roots in the Blue River Trail controversy, it’s useful first to look at the question on its face value, with all that recent, unfortunate history aside. What it boils down to is a question of property rights and the power of eminent domain. If you vote “yes,” you will ensure residents of Silverthorne will have a say at election time if they approve of the town’s intent to move forward with eminent domain; a “no” assures the town charter will remain as it is, with a vague, blanket power remaining at the town’s disposal. Here it is, by the way:
“The Town shall have the right of eminent domain for all municipal purposes whatever either within or without the limits of the Town.”
The potential amendment would add this language: “Prior to exercising this right for certain purposes specified in this section, the Town must first conduct an election and the exercise of the right of eminent domain must be approved by a majority of the registered electors voting at the election.”
The proposed amended charter then goes on to list certain types of situations the law might apply to, including recreational amenities, open space and if the intent is to turn the property over to another private entity. And it’s retroactive to February, which means the current eminent domain proceedings regarding the BRT would be subject to a vote. In short, it’s a bit of a TABOR amendment for property rights, requiring an election before the government can do something drastic (e.g., raise taxes or condemn property). In our view, the taking of private property is drastic indeed, and putting even that rare instance up to a vote is not necessarily a bad idea.
To be sure, the Town of Silverthorne has never used eminent domain lightly – the BRT situation is the first in town history. It’s also probably fair to note that if it weren’t for a group of unhappy homeowners along the BRT, this ballot question might never have arisen. But now that it’s here, voters should keep a few things in mind before casting a ballot:
1.A “yes” vote means the town charter would be amended to force those votes on eminent domain in most circumstances, including the current BRT situation. It could result in a vote that disallows the use of eminent domain, thus stymying town efforts to put the trail through in its preferred location. If such a vote went against the property owners, eminent domain proceedings would continue as they were. The decision, then, is in the hands of the people.
2. A “yes” vote also applies to future possible uses of eminent domain, and if you as a voter can imagine how unpleasant it would be to have your private land taken from you in any way by your town government, you might take the longer view and vote for these additional protections.
3. A “no” vote retains the status quo on the town’s right to eminent domain and the proceedings in the current BRT situation continue as they were. No additional protections for future eminent domain situations will be put in place, and since historically the town has only used it once in its history, it may never do so again. In this case, if you’re not worried about this ever happening again and don’t want to add another roadblock to the completion of the BRT, this is the way to go.
We are not endorsing a vote either way, although we have in the past objected to the use of eminent domain in all but the most extreme circumstances. However this vote goes, we do hope the town and the holdout property owners can somehow reach an agreement to lay this divisive controversy aside and move forward. Both sides have understandable, legitimate reasons for doggedly pursuing their goals, but ultimately something has to give, and in the interest of returning to a peaceful state of affairs, some compromise may be in order on both sides.
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