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?”

In 2000, Oregonians in Action, with Mrs. English’s help, worked to pass a constitutional amendment to end regulatory takings abuse. But that measure was subsequently struck down in court. Then in 2003, English’s state senator, a former president of the state’s Sierra Club, sponsored a bill to end this regulatory travesty. It passed, but Multnomah County put pressure to Governor Kulongoski, who killed it with a veto.

So Dorothy — and a whopping majority of Oregonians — struck back. “[U]nlike so many other people, Dorothy refused to lay down,” insists Hunnicut. “She’s been a constant and vocal critic of Oregon’s state land use system and Multnomah County in general. She was the voice for Measure 37. Multnomah County officials hate her guts.”

Measure 37 is Oregon’s voter initiative that requires governments to compensate property owners when they impose burdensome regulations that deny citizens the use of their property. It passed 61 to 39 percent in 2004 — garnering the most Yes votes of any initiative in Oregon history. This, despite the fact that Oregonians in Action found themselves outspent three-to-one by environmentalists, unions and the state’s big lobbies.

“People finally woke up to what was going on,” Dorothy said after the passage of Measure 37. “Their land was being stolen from them. That’s what I call it, ‘land-stealing.’ That’s why we got 61 percent.”

Measure 37 has also withstood constitutional challenge, but even so, the victory is not quite complete. Since going into effect, Measure 37 has suffered a continuing barrage of attacks from those Oregonians who seem wed to the dogma that all land should be controlled by an elite vanguard of the “Portlandtariat.” Usually no friends of taxpayers, their loudest argument against this reform is that property owners have filed claims totaling $7 billion against local governments, or the state, under 37.

Whew! That is a lot of money. So, what has 37 actually, really and truly cost Oregon taxpayers?

“Not a penny,” points out Hunnicutt. Governments have waived the regulations every single time. It causes one to wonder how important a regulation is to the public if there is such an unwillingness to pay for it.

Which brings us back to Dorothy English. Under Measure 37, Multnomah County must either waive their regulations on the development of her property or pay her the damages, which even the county admits to be over $1 million.

But county officials refuse to do either one, stalling. Waiting. Like vultures.

Having to fight one’s own government is tough for anyone, but especially for someone in her golden years. Dorothy English deserves to have her land or the money government officials owe her. Now.

“I’m so damn mad, and tired of fighting for what is right. I want my land to be mine, to do with whatever I want,” she says. “I don’t think that’s outrageous, do you?”


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.