April 30th, 2013

Eminent domain resale -- anyone know how things have developed since then?

Back when I still lived in Seattle, there was a proposal to extend the Monorail. It started as grassroots activism, made it through many regulatory/legislative/administrative hurdles, ultimately killed, if I understand things, by the Seattle City Council in a vote that required unanimity and couldn't get it. By that point, the Monorail Authority (<-- name might be wrong) had already used eminent domain to buy a lot of property along the proposed path for the project, and had already incurred substantial debt. The project was unwound, in part, by selling the properties acquired through eminent domain to pay down the debt. Here is a summary of how that part of the process ended:


Fox News (as in, the national network on TV/cable) latched onto this for the obvious reasons. People who occupy a variety of positions on the political spectrum believed that the property sold should be offered first to the people it was purchased from, a process which presumably would have left the Monorail Authority with more debt to unwind. I have no idea what kind of process they had in mind for offering it first to the people it was purchased from, whether they thought it should be offered back at the price it was bought from them, or whether that price should have been adjusted for inflation, or there should have been some sort of auction set up to set the price in the open market and then offered to the previous owner at that price or whatever. Needless to say, which was selected would have significant impacts to both sides of the transaction and to the lenders/taxpayers.

It's a weird situation that triggers "hard cases make bad law". But independent of that, I have to ask: what happened with all that property since then? The resolution wrapped up shortly before the bust, and we are only now getting into significant development. Some original owners were able to repurchase. At the time the article was written, people were complaining about the missed opportunity to increase parks/green space. The hope was that the shuffling would result in more jobs and more urban housing. Expect updates as I look into this further.

I just found out about all this when it came up in the context of a conversation about the use of eminent domain in general -- the concern was that land that was taken by the government might then be resold and that seemed wrong. I'd _never_ heard of that happening, but the person who told me the story is reliable, so I thought I'd track it down. The story does demonstrate the usual rules of recollection: the monorail did not figure in the story (even tho it was what was driving this project), and the date of the events was both uncertain and more recent than actuality. I've been running across that problem my whole life (my dad had this whole, "about five years ago", which usually meant more like 25, but always at least 10), but the financial crisis provides a truly excellent break point: no significant projects have been started fresh since then (only ones put on hiatus have been restarted, and not so many of those -- that's actually not true, a spec office tower went up in SF a while back) so I figured I had to go back before 2008, but probably not by a lot or I would have remembered it myself.

ETA: One of the properties Mastro bought which has since changed hands numerous times:


I think this is the one mentioned that Harbor bought in West Seattle, but if so it was built even bigger than originally planned:


And the location doesn't match this earlier coverage so I am confused. I don't know West Seattle that well.


Ah, it looks like the monorail piece turned into Mural:


_The Early History of the Law of Bills and Notes_, James Steven Rogers

Subtitled: A Study of the Origins of Anglo-American Commercial Law
Published by Cambridge University Press, 1995, but the first paperback (which is what I read) was 2004. I actually bought this quite recently in paper.

It's a little risky writing a review of this, because it is legal history written by: http://www.bc.edu/schools/law/fac-staff/deans-faculty/rogersj.html, and I have three in-laws who are lawyers, one of whom is at a law school. There's a real risk I'm going to say something breathtakingly stupid and a family member will catch me at it. At least someone will find it amusing.

I like monographs. I like history. I'm currently very interested in payment systems, and while the law holds only limited appeal for me, Rogers has picked such an interesting topic, approach and rhetorical structure that I found this volume so good I am honestly tempted to re-start it from the beginning now that I am done with it, because I am very confident I'll get a lot more out of it the second time. I am not certain I have _ever_ felt that way about a non-fiction book, and it has probably been a decade or more since I've felt that way about _any_ book, ever. Will you enjoy it? Probably not.

Rogers' book is intended to explain how what we would call commercial law developed as bills of exchange became increasingly common and a form of currency in England and the United States. He is writing against a proposition that "Law Merchant" was a separate body of law, administered in separate courts, and incorporated into the common law. He asserts -- convincingly -- that idea grew over the ensuing centuries partly as a result of a misunderstanding of intervening partisan rhetoric. Rogers' has to explain, along the way, how the common law system of England changed during the relevant time frame: classification schemes changed and also the kinds of cases heard changed over the course of the early Industrial Revolution. He spends time showing how some jurists systemized common law by ensuring that cases that illuminated important -- even if largely non-controversial -- points were handled by the Westminster Court en banc (<-- real risk I got a technical detail here slightly wrong). He also does a really great job ensuring the reader understands economic theories prevalent at the time, so that the arguments made in court can be understood _as they were by the people making and hearing them_, not distorted by theories prevalent in our time.

It would have helped if I'd had any operational understanding of common law from the time period; this is something I kind of had to figure out as I was reading. Weirdly, a lot of background detail from novels (either written in the time period, such as Austen, or set in the time period, such as a f*ckton of romance novels) means I understood how people used bills during at least part of this time period.

It is ridiculously easy to write about the development of business and industry while completely ignoring the governance and judicial structures that shape markets. It is possible to write about the law as it has been applied to commerce while more or less ignoring changes in business practice over time. Rogers is doing something amazing here, by addressing a systemic misunderstanding of how the two interact, and, while a legal scholar, doing really excellent work as a historian in support of his argument.

So you probably won't really care for this, nevertheless, it is one of the best books I have ever read. I look forward to his more recent work on payment systems.

ETA: I should add that I really wanted to read his more recent work on payment systems, but it's expensive ($75 for the kindle version and the used copies run over $60) and I wasn't certain I would enjoy/trust this author. Reading this book -- which I had run across passages in google books when I was looking at stuff about accommodation bills -- has convinced me it's worth it). Also, it's not available on the e-ink kindle, only the Fire and other, similar displays.