In Wild West, A Wild Property Grab

January 28, 2014 | By Christina Sandefur, Goldwater Institute 

Alarmed by a U.S. Supreme Court decision that left property across America vulnerable to government seizure, in 2006 Arizona voters overwhelmingly enacted Prop. 207, one of the nation’s strongest protections for property rights. That law ensured that government can only take private property for truly public uses, not to help out developers or intimidate political foes.

Yet the small town of Florence, Arizona, is trying to circumvent these protections to target Florence Copper, which uses cutting-edge mining technology to recover and develop minerals around the world. Rather than embracing the much-needed job opportunities Florence Copper will provide to its citizens, town politicians have waged war on the company, inflicting death by a thousand regulatory cuts.

First, the town tried to shut down the Florence Copper’s daily operations by condemning its administrative buildings. Then, it subjected the company’s mining activities to criminal penalties. The town even teamed up with private developers in a lawsuit aimed at thwarting the company’s environmental permits. When Florence Copper refused to surrender to political intimidation, the town resolved to seize the company’s property outright.

Under Prop. 207, the town must demonstrate that a property’s use – here, copper mining – directly threatens public health and safety. But the company has acquired over a dozen permits from state and federal agencies and collected 16-years’ worth of data that show the process is safe.

So officials have labored to devise other justifications for taking the property, including securing water rights for the town’s water supply and land to build a wastewater treatment facility. But Arizona says the town has enough water to meet its needs for the next century, and the town already has plans to locate a treatment facility elsewhere. And neither of these uses justify taking all of the company’s land.

With the passage of Prop. 207, Arizonans sent a resounding message that government must respect their property rights. The episode in Florence is a warning to property owners across Arizona and the nation: if such flimsy pretexts could enable the government to seize private land, then no one’s property is safe.

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Posted in Private Property Rights, Public Policy