Flight 93 conundrum: Eminent domain to seize the land for memorial

On September 11, 2001, the national resistance to radical Islamist terrorism began in the air over Pennsylvania, when the passengers of United Flight 93 gave their lives to save perhaps thousands of others and thwarted the plans of four terrorist hijackers.  The site of their heroism has been honored as a de facto monument to their courage and sacrifice, and eventually will host a formal monument to their defense of liberty.  Unfortunately, the government has chosen one of the least honorable methods to secure the property:

The government will begin taking land from seven property owners so that the Flight 93 memorial can be built in time for the 10th anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks, the National Park Service said.

In a statement obtained by The Associated Press, the park service said it had teamed up with a group representing the victims’ families to work with landowners since before 2005 to acquire the land.

“But with few exceptions, these negotiations have been unsuccessful,” said the statement.

Landowners dispute that negotiations have taken place and say they are disappointed at the turn of events.

This announcement took the landowners by surprise.  They had planned all along to cooperate with the government once the time came to start construction of the memorial.  One owner said he’d actually planned to donate the land.  Their attorneys say the government never started negotiations on the sale of the land.

In fact, NPS spokesman Phil Sheridan seems to implicitly confirm that negotiations weren’t really the issue:

“We always prefer to get that land from a willing seller. And sometimes you can just not come to an agreement on certain things,” park service spokesman Phil Sheridan said.

“Basically, at this point, we have not been able to acquire all the land we need,” he said.

Even with willing sellers, Sheridan said title questions, liens and other claims can arise that would have to be worked out and could delay the project.

Well, did they bother to try?  Not according to the owners contacted by the AP.  One said that NPS showed up on his doorstep for the first time on Friday with an offer, which he forwarded to his attorney.  The attorney called Monday to arrange for an appraisal in order to ensure that the offer was valid.  Ronald Musser didn’t even get that much, but he sits on the committee which acts as a liaison between NPS and the owners — and says the NPS promised not to use eminent domain to seize the properties in 2002.

Unlike the Kelo case, in which a city grabbed property from residential owners to flip it to commercial developers, there is a legitimate public interest in this land.  Eminent domain would be a rational last step in order to ensure that the memorial got built, but it should never be a first step in any project.  Respect for property rights means that the government should have made an honest effort to work out the deal with the owners prior to filing an eminent-domain seizure complaint.  Given the nature of this memorial, perhaps that should have been even more the case here.