Golf and Gardens land should be offered first to original owners

One of our country's most revered founders, James Madison, once observed that "Where an excess of power prevails, property of no sort is duly respected. No man is safe in his opinions, his person, his faculties or his possessions."

It is with this concept in mind that I recently filed Senate Bill 431, legislation that would grant a right of first refusal to the original owners of real estate acquired to create the now-defunct Georgia Golf Hall of Fame Golf and Gardens. My motive for doing so was simple -- I believed that it was the right thing to do.

Just a short time ago, the state of Georgia made some Augusta landowners an offer they couldn't refuse: sell your property to us for the Golf Hall of Fame, or we will condemn the property, take you to court and pay you even less for it.

At the time of the offer, few, if any of the landowners were actively seeking to sell their property. Some sought unsuccessful options for excluding their property from the acquisition. Given these choices, almost all of the landowners yielded to the state's efforts to acquire their property on the Savannah River for the benefit of the Augusta community.

We now know that the project for the Golf Hall of Fame fell well short of the predictions and expectations, and the state's willingness to appropriate additional funding for future operations has been lost.

STATE AND COMMUNITY leaders are already proposing actions designed to determine another "best use" for the Golf Hall of Fame site. As with the Golf Hall of Fame a decade ago, they are also working to convince the community that the new and different projects now being proposed offer unyielding benefits that will tremendously improve our state and local economy.

Unfortunately, the original owners who were forced to sell their property to the state cannot reclaim their property rights, even though the legal basis for the state's acquisition has vanished.

Since taking office in 2005, I have championed economic development in Augusta by introducing and supporting legislation to provide our great city the resources and services it needs to be competitive in a global economy. I will continue to do so as long as you allow me to serve. I, too, would enjoy some of the possible amenities now being discussed for the land in question.

However, my legislation would protect the rights of the original property owners by first offering them a chance to buy the property back from the state. My bill is not an albatross to economic development, but more a safeguard to protect a right we all enjoy.

SB 431 seeks to consider the rights of original owners who accepted state law, even though the law may have been inconsistent with their wishes and plans for the use of their private property.

I AM MINDFUL of the arguments presented in opposition to the bill. Some argue that it is not in the best interest of the community to break up the site. They contend that it would be too difficult and too costly to assemble another site of that size and quality on the Savannah River, and that it would substantially delay redevelopment of the Golf and Gardens site. Others argue that the original property owners should have vigorously challenged the state's attempts to acquire the property.

This is one of those times where I struggle to find the best answer in my efforts to strike a fair balance between what is best for the community and my belief that private property rights should be protected. This is one of those times where there is no easy answer.

I am, however, committed to working together to find the best possible solution for our community.

We will never know why the vision and expectations for the Golf and Gardens failed to materialize. However, today, SB 431 presents one option for lessening the impact of this situation on the initial property owners by mitigating the impact of good intentions gone awry.

Notwithstanding the outcome, it is worth the effort to seek a solution that ensures both the protection of individual private property rights and provides for the redevelopment the Golf and Gardens site for the benefit of Augusta.

Our country was founded on the principle of liberty -- a powerful concept whereby all people are considered equal and possessing of certain basic rights to be codified and protected by the government. The civil liberties we enjoy, including our right to own property and the privacy we safeguard, all stem from this fundamental and profoundly important idea.

ANY ATTEMPT by the state to curtail or undermine this principle cannot be tolerated, for the thread that holds our democracy together would surely unravel. To underscore this point, President George Washington correctly stated that "arbitrary power is most easily established on the ruins of liberty abused to licentiousness."

I will always represent the interests of people, be it one or 100, for we all are equal and bestowed with certain rights that must be protected. SB 431 is a shield to defend our liberty, not a spear to strike down economic development.

(Sen. Ed Tarver represents the 22nd Senate District, which includes Richmond County. He may be reached at 404-656-0340, or via e-mail at ed.tarver@senate.ga.gov.)

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