For whom the bell tolls 

Battle over private land seizures continues

click to enlarge State senator Tom Wiens wants to stop private - companies from grabbing citizen land by putting the - issue on the 2006 ballot.
  • State senator Tom Wiens wants to stop private companies from grabbing citizen land by putting the issue on the 2006 ballot.

One way or another, the fight over whether corporations can seize citizen-owned land in Colorado for toll roads will become much larger before it goes away.

That's because enraged citizens, politicians and developers all want to press the issue -- and force a showdown between now and next November.

Last week, state Sen. Tom Wiens, a Republican from Castle Rock, drafted a referendum for the 2006 ballot that would deny private companies their current right to land grabs for toll roads.

The proposal contains language identical to that in a bill that passed resoundingly through the state House of Representatives and Senate earlier this year before being vetoed by Republican Gov. Bill Owens, who backs the toll road.

"Instead of going into a fight with the governor," Wiens said last Thursday at a work session of the Transportation Legislation Review Committee, "we can go over his head and go straight to the people."

Swarming the capitol

The controversy centers on a proposal by developer Ray Wells to convert a 12-mile-wide swath of the eastern plains, from Fort Collins to Pueblo, into a toll road. Angry plains residents swarmed the Capitol in record numbers in March, when they learned that companies that want to build toll roads, under a 19th-century Colorado law, retain the power to force the sale of their homes and land.

The Democrat-controlled legislature turned against Wells' toll road plan, which had been on the verge of becoming a reality.

Last week, committee members voted unanimously to allow Wiens' referendum to go forward. A majority of votes in both the House and Senate will be required before being referred to the voters next year.

"The 2006 ballot will be an important step," says Chuck Shaw, a co-chair of the Eastern Plains Citizens Coalition, a group that vehemently opposes land seizures. "But we're not putting all of our eggs in one basket."

Any bills that go through the legislature, he says, must be watched closely.

Search for compromise

Meanwhile, work continues on plans for building a Front Range toll road.

"We are working on bringing the corridor down to three miles [wide] or less," says Wells, who adds that he's been working alongside the Colorado Department of Transportation to build a compromise plan.

And Wells isn't the only one with current applications for toll roads. For example, Colorado Springs developer Lindsay Case filed for three new Colorado Springs and Denver-area toll roads this summer.

Land-grab opponents fear that these applicants have been emboldened by Gov. Owens' veto pen, and by a bitter split decision from the U.S. Supreme Court in June. Justices ruled 5-4 in Kelo v. City of New London to uphold local government's right to use eminent domain on behalf of private companies. The court's ruling has alarmed property-rights advocates nationwide.

Although the decision does not directly pertain to Colorado's toll road law, opponents like Shaw see danger in the precedent if the state's Department of Transportation decides to step in.

"The state may just come in," he says, "condemn the property and hand it over."

-- Dan Wilcock


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