ERICKSON: Property rights and history

February 21, 2014 

It is a general tenet of the American experience that an individual should be allowed to control his property within reason, so long as it does not affect the rights of his neighbors. If a person enters into a sales contract to sell his property, he should be allowed to sell it. Occasionally, however, people assign historic meaning to a piece of property and they seek to preserve it. Where the owner’s rights and the community’s sense of history conflict, the owner tends to win.

This brings us back to Tremont Temple Baptist Church. Macon-Bibb County Planning & Zoning will reconsider Tremont’s situation next week. The building is in danger of collapse. The church has found a willing buyer. The buyer needs to tear down the church in order to build a donut shop. Some are opposed to the sale because of commercialization. Others oppose the sale because of the building’s historic significance.

The area needs commercialization. Tremont’s old facility is located by The Medical Center of Central Georgia. There is a McDonald’s in the hospital and a Subway sandwich shop right next to Tremont’s property. That is it. Unlike many hospitals, the Medical Center is not surrounded by great oceans of parking lots, but rather by a neighborhood. That neighborhood is changing.

That area needs more chain restaurants to satisfy the population of workers, hospital visitors and others. The church is prime real estate. It has also been for sale for seven years. Others had a chance to make a competitive bid to save the property, but that did not happen. The church finally accepted an offer that requires demolition of a building already in danger of collapse. Only then did others step up.

It is a dangerous precedent to allow others to get in the middle of a private sale once the contract is signed. More troubling, when the matter went before Planning & Zoning the first time, Historic Macon and others tried to intercede to stop the transaction by stopping approval for demolition.

The record seems pretty clear that Planning & Zoning chose not to review the demolition on its own merits, objectively and dispassionately removed from the ancillary issues, but chose to act as an arbiter to shift the purchase from one party to another. The government chose to determine whom a private party could sell its property to, using its regulatory power to obstruct the initial sale.

Something has obviously happened. It seems Tremont was willing to accept from Historic Macon the same amount of money as the developer was willing to pay. But Tremont finds itself in an unfortunate position now because of the government. It has a legally binding contract with a developer. Tremont is supposed to cooperate in the sale. It cannot now try to undermine the sale, and there is no sign that it desires to undermine the sale.

But the government wants Tremont to undermine the sale. The government wants to control the fate of a property that is in danger of imminent collapse. The government does not want to cover the costs of preventing collapse of the church. It would rather interfere in the private sale of property and crater the deal.

Planning & Zoning and others have behaved badly. The commission was created to remove planning and zoning from political bodies to an objective body without the pressure of politics. Instead, it has not only shown itself to dabble in politics and personal whim, but to presume itself unaccountable. Our new Macon-Bibb County Commission might want to consider that.

Erick Erickson is a Fox News contributor and radio talk show host in Atlanta.

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