Friday, July 22, 2011

TRAIL BULLIES? Could eminent domain threat wreck Audubon trail compromise? Part 1

Charges of "settlement under duress" cloud trail/nature sanctuary deal
COLUMBIA, 7/22/11  (Beat Byte) -- Amidst some of the more impassioned Columbia City Council presentations this writer has heard in years, charges that City Hall was prepared to use eminent domain to get a bike and walking trail through land owned by the Columbia Audubon Society raised serious questions about a "compromise agreement" Council members approved Monday night.
Settlements made under coercion or duress represent a legal, moral, and ethical gray area.  Some organizations even specify that agreements not be reached under duress.   The U.S. Department of Labor follows such a guideline with workers compensation claims.   A 2010 Alabama appellate case also addressed duress, this time in a divorce.  In many states, divorce settlements can be set aside if "duress or coercion" is proven.
The Audubon/trail agreement was designed to settle an unusual dispute between Audubon Society members, who support a pristine nature sanctuary, and pedestrian/bicycle enthusiasts who want a $980,000 trail through the 22 acre property in West Columbia.  Donated by local attorney Garland Russell, Jr. and detailed on page 31 of this presentation, the nature sanctuary abuts a larger 90-acre parcel Russell's father, Garland Sr., donated in 1999. 
For years, the two parcels have appeared as complimentary parts in a coherent whole.  The 90-acre Bonnie View parcel is nature with walking, bicycling, and ADA accessibility.  The smaller Audubon Society parcel is pure nature
The dispute has changed all that, pitting conservationists against trail advocates in an almost Civil War-like "brother against brother" fashion. 
Fear and loathing in Columbia
An opening quote in a Missourian article sums up the settlement situation:  "Fueled by fear, members of the Columbia Audubon Society (CAS) made a deal in order to protect their land as best they could."  
The deal -- approved only by the Audubdon Society's 10-member board -- grants permission for the trail with six caveats, including a prohibition against dogs on the property and a mandate that the new trail destroy no trees.   The fear -- that City Hall might use eminent domain to take land for the trail by force -- was first suggested by the group's Columbia-based attorney, Craig van Matre

"I think there are legal defenses that could prevent CAS from being forced to give up its land based on the City's use of eminent domain," van Matre wrote in a July 14 letter to Council and city staff members.  "Their wish was that the trail stay off their property," he told Council members at Monday's meeting.  "But as a result of me pushing them perhaps harder than they wished I had pushed them, um, they recognize that, um, they were in the long run better off with a compromise of this type...than one which might have been arbitrarily imposed on them through a condemnation process." 
Final implementation requires a full vote of Audubon Society members, however, and if testimony at Monday's Council meeting is any guide, that approval may be hard to secure.
Sister against sister
The dispute's "brother against brother" character was evident at Monday's Council meeting when well-known community advocate and North Central Columbia neighborhood association president Patricia Fowler described a change of heart in the evening's most eloquent presentation, followed by a stirring call from Kathleen Weinschenk to make the area more accessible to people with disabilities. 
Fowler had "signed a petition on Earth Day to support the trail, having never set foot on the land," she told Council members. 
But after visiting the Audubon sanctuary July 4th with a 7-year old girl to watch a bald eagle released back into the wild, Fowler found herself now on the opposite side of "people I respect" including Pednet members and others pushing for the new trail. 
"I'm 52 years old, I've been to most of the zoos in this country, I watch lots of films, I wasn't expecting much of anything," Fowler explained, her voice often quivering.  "And then Einstein the Eagle, who we all know had lead poisoning, a man-made condition, after he was jostled out of his crate, took two hops, spread his wings, and flew.  I have never in my life seen anything more impressive and majestic.  The symbolism of July 4th was not lost on me." 
Openly wondering about the intrusiveness of a trail that would use concrete for accessibility and encourage the kind of wheel and foot traffic that drives most wildlife into hiding, Fowler asked, "Will we prevent something magnificent from happening in front of an adult my age or a child to see?"
From her motorized wheelchair, Weinschenk spoke with equal passion about what she called a "wonderful place." 
"I know many people who would like to see [the sanctuary], but they can't walk," Weinschenk told Council members.  "So I would like to have a trail that makes it possible for everyone to see it."   
With few exceptions, the nearly 90 minutes of testimony that followed opposed the trail on sanctuary land and condemned the eminent domain threat. 
"I keep hearing the word 'compromise'," said Gary Simpson, who lives adjacent to the sanctuary.   "But a compromise with a gun held to your head -- I don't think that's right." 
Next Up:  Who suggested eminent domain?  And is this "deja view?" 

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