The city of Mebane has a major test of its values on the horizon.
The city, which has adopted the moniker “positively charming” to describe its small-town appeal, is faced with whether to demonstrate that hometown friendliness or show the power, authority, even ruthlessness of a larger, more faceless municipality.
At stake are the property rights of some elderly, absentee property owners, whose ancestors (their Mom and Dad) left them a little patch of property on the outskirts of the city.
But the much larger implications involve the property rights of hundreds, even thousands, of other property owners throughout the city.
Because what the city is willing to do to these out-of-state owners could just as easily be turned against local property owners, as well.
The heirs of Robert Clyde Curry, Sr. and his wife Katie Evans Curry own a little quarter-acre of land off Roosevelt Street in an area known as “West End,” a predominantly black section of what is usually called Mebane, but which isn’t actually within the city’s corporate limits.
It seems that their little piece of property is in the path of a “greenway trail” that the city wants to build through the backyards and woods between the Mebane Arts and Community Center and South Mebane Elementary School. That east-west trail is part of a three-prong trail that was supposed to include a north-south spur to the city’s Holt Street Park.
City leaders have become enamored of the concept of this “greenway trail” – sometimes to the point of obsession, it seems to us – and it has consumed an inordinate amount of discussion over recent years, especially during budget season as city officials talk about how much they’re willing to spend to initiate this trail idea and how fast they want to accomplish it.
Greenway trails are a municipal fad; but if pursued,
city should check with property owners first, not last
Let us be candid: this newspaper has long questioned both whether such a trail is a wise investment of tax dollars (as opposed to a fleeting fad that the city will end up being saddled with for years to come), as well as whether the city has followed a prudent strategy in seeking to implement the idea.
In many other municipalities, such “trails through the woods” have become a hotbed for criminal activity.
Mebane has a wonderful and extensive sidewalk system throughout the city, which is much more accessible to a larger portion of city residents and which, being very public, has a lot more security than an isolated stretch through heavily-wooded and secluded areas.
We noted with some amusement, and a sense of déjà vu, that during one of the city council’s recent budget sessions, outgoing police chief Terry Caldwell mentioned that one of the reasons he’s recommending more police officers is, you guessed it, in order to patrol these new trails.
Putting a million dollars toward repairing and adding sidewalks would seem to us a much wiser use of the money – if, in fact, city leaders feel compelled to spend it at all.
We had also suggested years ago that the city should perhaps approach the property owners along the path of its desired trail at the outset of their project to ensure that they had an interest in letting their backyards and other parts of their properties be used by the city to have the public traipse across it – ostensibly only during daylight hours.
But, no, they didn’t seek out the property owners in advance, and now what we consider an obvious oversight has taken on new implications.
We thought it unlikely that there would be unanimous joy over granting the city a perpetual easement over their properties, and we cautioned about whether the city would ultimately invoke its power – through the use of condemnation or eminent domain – to seize the use of property that owners prefer to keep for their own private use.
Oh, no, city officials insisted: quaint, charming Mebane would never consider doing something so harsh and draconian, they assured, as recently as three years ago.
Mebane ready to renege on previous assurances not to confiscate property
But now, city manager Chris Rollins recently told the city council, the city may have “no choice” but to institute condemnation proceedings against four absentee heirs who jointly own one lot that the city wants to cross with its trail. “One little easement on that owner’s property will hold up the whole project,” he told the council last month.
And, no, he insisted, there is no “alternative” route that doesn’t involve crossing the property once owned by Robert and Katie Curry.
Pardon our skepticism.
We can understand the city manager’s frustration with the project to date. The city already had to change the trail’s proposed route somewhat to accommodate the fact that Duke Energy has transmission lines in the area and will not allow a trail to pass under them or do grading within 25 feet of its poles. And there are some wetland areas, so no going over terrain that might wash out at some point.
So rules on transmission lines and wetlands have to be complied with – apparently more so than respecting the property rights of an individual landowner.
Did city really make much of an effort to contact property owners
Pardon also our additional skepticism about just how hard the city has worked to reach the property owners.
After securing public documents from the city through a public records request, one of our industrious reporters scouted out a phone number for the New York owners and called the number. The property owner answered the call on our first effort and was more than willing to discuss the family’s plans for their property, which do not include granting an easement.
(Granted, the property owner may have “screened” her calls, answering only when the caller started to leave a voice message was identified as a reporter with this newspaper, but there was no indication that the city had even attempted to reach her by phone, although the city manager told the council that it had.)
Additionally, the city says it sent three letters over the past year (which still isn’t all that much effort, in our opinion), but the owner said she had received only two.
The elderly brother and sister hope to move back to Mebane and rebuild a house on the property where their homeplace stood before it burned down a few decades ago.
The protections for property owners are enshrined in the U.S. Constitution: “[N]or shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation,” part of the Fifth Amendment.
The city says it has offered about 20 percent of the value of the property, $1,697.47, to the Curry family for the easement.
But we have a more fundamental question. Is it truly a “public use,” much less an actually necessary or compelling one, for Mebane to have its very own greenway trail?
We hardly think a walking or biking trail rises to the level of fire and police service, public roads, or other truly essential municipal services.
We can understand governments needing to invoke the Fifth Amendment’s “public use” clause for roads, bridges, water and sewer lines, and other vital infrastructure.
In the case of water and sewer lines, by the way, the Curry heirs did consent, just a few years ago (2013), to an easement for Mebane to run them under their property.
But something that would permanently run over their property is quite another matter, indeed.
Curry family today could be anyone else tomorrow or next time
And we can understand any municipality’s difficulty in dealing with a “strategic holdout,” in the parlance of development. But the Curry siblings aren’t holding out for strategic purposes, as best we can tell. They simply want to rebuild on their Mom and Dad’s property.
And it seems to us to be a questionable use of invoking the city’s power to condemn for something as discretionary and, quite frankly, superfluous as a greenway trail.
So, for now, the city’s power and threats are focused on the elderly black sibling property owners way off in New York.
But beware; what government can do to them, it can do to others.
Just because they don’t live here, doesn’t mean they don’t have equal rights as property owners who do physically reside within Mebane. For instance, they have dutifully paid property taxes – to Alamance County and to the city of Mebane – every year.
We think another good measure of assessing the situation is the old Biblical standard of the “Golden Rule.” What, we wonder, would any council member or city staff member think in a similar situation if the greenway trail were running through their property?
We doubt they’d be considering condemnation, simply to create a trail.
Other property owners also not enthusiastic
to give up easements on their properties
Earlier in these comments we noted that the original plans for the greenway trail included a north-south spur to the Holt Street Park.
Why is it still not included?
Well, it seems not all of the property owners along that route were any more enthusiastic about allowing it than the Curry heirs have been. City manager Rollins told the council that some property owners were “not real thrilled about it.”
City attorney Lawson Brown elaborated in response to the newspaper’s subsequent public records request: There are eight properties along the northern greenway trail’s route, he said. Of those, one had agreed to grant the city an easement; the city received “a strong ‘no’ from two” of the property owners, according to Brown; and the city has had “no response from the others” –i.e., apparently five.
So the seven property owners who haven’t consented to the easement may watch carefully as the city deals with the Curry siblings.
Would Mebane city council members actually authorize and vote for such a high-handed action? We would hope not.
If the city is actually willing to go forward with threatened legal proceedings to condemn the one property it still needs on the east-west route – based on its alleged “public use” as a greenway trail – it could be only a matter of time before the city comes after those other reluctant owners, as well as the two who were outright opposed to granting an easement, on the north-south part of the same proposed trail.
And, for that matter, it could come after property owners anywhere in Mebane if city officials took a notion to establishing another trail elsewhere that just happened to cross their land.
Let’s recap the reactions of property owners vs. the city and city council members. There are apparently five property owners along the east-west corridor, four of whom are willing participants, one who hasn’t responded or engaged with the city, but who told The Alamance News they’re not interested in granting an easement. So, all told, there are 13 properties involved, and only five owners are willing, at least so far, to grant an easement.
Mebane’s city manager says that the existing Curry property is essential to the “whole project.”
Which brings us back to the question of whether the project itself is vital, i.e., one worth pursuing, in the first place.
But at a minimum, we wonder if the city’s creativity in looking for an alternative path around the Curry property wouldn’t be improved if it became clear that condemnation is not an option.
Mebane has a choice: what kind of city does it want to be?