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Federal money encourages overly ambitious park project

“Free” federal money always has costs. In the case of some families in Dakota County, Minnesota, it could cost them their property. They own land that is surrounded by a park that the county has been assembling for a while, along the Mississippi River. Spurred by the lure of an offer of funds from the federal government (an offer that will expire soon), the county wants to get the last of the in-holdings and build a bike path that will be part of a multi-county trail system. The families don’t want to sell, and one in particular has taken to the airwaves and Internet, drawing the attention of Tea Party and property-right activists.

I do frequent county, state, and other parks for bike riding and skiing, so you’d think I would be sympathetic to the county. But I think that Minnesota has a public-recreation-government-complex at work. For example, it competes with commercial enterprises, as when cities build magnificent water parks or indoor play structures. The “legacy funding” statewide sales tax is a slush fund for all sorts of recreation-and-sporting groups, and urban planners are trying to nudge people out of cars and onto bicycles through “traffic calming,” bike lanes, and the like.

I’m sympathetic to the plight of the families, since property rights are a key part of a system of limited government.

But is the county out of bounds? I don’t think so, legally. They want land for a park. Creating and maintaining parks? Governments have been doing that for a long time, and parks are public goods.

If the county isn’t out of bounds legally, I think it’s being imprudent and heavy handed. Seizing someone’s land should not be done lightly, and it should be the last resort for highly critical public goods. In this case, the park is already largely in place, and one family says it is willing to sell a small portion of its land so that the county can complete the path. But the county wants all of the family’s land, including that not strictly required for the path. That’s going too far.

From what I have read, and I admit to not having followed this development extremely closely, there’s a systematic problem at work here: that free federal money, coupled with the pressure (political pressure, plus perhaps some funds) from a regional, unelected government body known as the Met Council. The council is all about promoting “smart growth,” “livable communities,” parks, and bike paths.

If the county commissioners are going to spend millions of dollars to create a super-park, they ought to do so with county tax revenue. Why? That way, the costs of their actions will be borne by the people who elect them. The feds don’t put them into office, and neither do the officials of the Met Council. So there’s a disconnect: The county commissioners can take steps that please state and federal officials, deliver bennies to local residents, and not present a bill for their actions to the local residents. The only people who feel the pain are a few families.  That’s not good.

If there’s a not-awful element about this story, it’s that eminent domain, if used, will be for a project that is truly public. The county isn’t taking from a landowner to give money to a private business interest, nor is it justifying its actions on the need to raise revenue. In short, it’s not practicing crony capitalism or industrial policy, just an overly ambitious version of what governments (pure libertarian thought aside) governments should be doing.

Right now, the dispute is in mediation, though I don’t see a positive outcome for the families. The resolution to the action lies in citizens contacting county commissioners.