Paul Jacob

Stealing is wrong. Stealing from a 95-year old widow is despicably wrong. But somehow, when the stealing is done by the very folks pledged to serve and protect — by one’s own government — well, wrong becomes wicked.

Is this what American governance has become? A big, fat, greedy, people-devouring bully? Even at the local level?

For the last 33 years, Multnomah County, Oregon has robbed Dorothy English of the use of her land, negating her life savings and stomping on her dream to provide for her children. Now, after this wily grandmother has beaten the politicians and regulators in court as well as at the polls (twice), county officials continue to appeal, delaying a resolution.

“Multnomah County’s lawyers know that if Dorothy dies before the case is done,” Portland-based talk-show host Lars Larson explained to his audience, “then the county owes her and her estate nothing. The property rights expire when this sweet lady passes.”

“Their hope is that Dorothy . . . will never see the day that she recovers her money,” says Dave Hunnicutt, president of Oregonians in Action, about county officials. “If people want to know why property rights are important, this is a first-class example.”

The saga begins in 1953. Dorothy and her late husband purchased 20 acres of land less than a mile from Portland city limits, in an area of rural home sites with beautiful views. The Englishes were making an investment in their future, and their children’s. The goal was to sub-divide the property both to give lots to their children and to sell lots to finance their retirement.

In 1973, Multnomah County and the State of Oregon began to rezone Dorothy’s property, preventing any such development. Today, her land is zoned as commercial forest, despite the fact that there aren’t many trees on the property and there’s been no commercial forestry in the area for decades.

And that’s just one regulation. There are plenty more covering her property. County officials also claim elk use it, making it a “wildlife corridor.”

“My lawyer researched it and found there were 61 regulations against my property — 61!” says English.

Such stupid regulation may indeed be widespread, but it ran smack dab into a great American tradition: resistance. Dorothy English wasn’t going to just take it.

“My God, it took us so long, of scrimping and saving and working, to pay for this place. And then to let somebody steal it?”

Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.