The practice by local governments of using the power of eminent domain has a long and storied history in America. Indeed, it’s written into the constitution that governments can seize private property, provided they use it for a public good and pay the owners “just compensation.”
The first of these requirements has been eroded down to nothingness since the case of Kelo v. City of New London. However, the second one has remained in force, and been an effective deterrent against governments taking away property willy nilly, since all the costs would add up in theory.
Unfortunately, Ventura County in California has found a way around this limit by using zoning regulations to make it so prohibitively difficult for businesses to exist that the owners just pack up and leave of their own volition. This video from Reason Magazine explains the extremely sleazy approach involved:
The video centers on two local businesses – one of which, the Pine Mountain Inn, has been around since the 1930s, and hosted the likes of the Hell’s Angels.
The inn was forced to close down in 2002 when the owner, Tom Wolf, had a heart attack. Yet now it’s being stopped from reopening because, according to the county, this building has numerous zoning violations, including an unauthorized chicken coop.
There’s just one problem – not only is the idea of an unauthorized chicken coop natively ridiculous, but according to the business’s owner, there is no chicken coop on the premises at all. That’s right, the authorities have resorted to accusing the Inn of violations for buildings that don’t exist on the property.
Why? According to the video, because the local government doesn’t like the fact that there are human beings living out in the rural parts of Ventura County and spoiling it for the wildlife.
“They wanted a complete open space with nothing but deer and frogs and no people,” says Tom Wolf, the owner of the Pine Mountain Inn.
And no, this isn’t just the railing of a bitter business owner. There is an actual policy on the books in Ventura County that prevents any economic development of the rural areas in Ventura County. Fair enough, but what about the businesses that already exist in those areas? Apparently, the county’s proposed solution is to basically force all the rural residents into the urban center so as to get rid of all these messy, environmentally unfriendly humans.
And this, too, they could probably do, if they just used eminent domain to take over the land that the Pine Mountain Inn is on, and paid Wolf for his property. But Ventura County is too cheap to do that, and so they’re trying to use bureaucratic red tape to force Wolf to close his business rather than just seize it and pay him up front.
Wolf sued Ventura County back in 2010 over this behavior, and it’s unclear whether there has been any movement on the case since the suit was filed. Unfortunately, he’s not the only one who’s been targeted using this underhanded, sleazy approach to land management. Another restuarant that has suffered similar treatment is a Bed and Breakfast called “The Wheel,” whose owners say they’ve been hit with every conceivable safety violation under the sun in an effort to get them to close down.
Fortunately, there is a group that is trying to help – namely, the Ventura County Coalition of Labor and Business, whose executive director has a very good question about these kinds of cases, according to Reason’s article on the same subject:
“If there isn’t someone complaining, and there isn’t really a serious public health and safety issue, why do they spend so much of their time pursuing these kinds of cases?”