Thursday, June 24, 2010 | 2 a.m.
THE ISSUE AT HANDEminent domain has been in the news recently because a Canadian company, Fronteer Development Inc., seeks to claim nearly 1,800 acres of the Big Springs Ranch in Elko County.
WILL IT STICK?The deadline for the Legislative Counsel Bureau to recommend removal of outdated laws has passed for the 2011 session, but the bureau might recommend the sugar beet provision for elimination in 2013.
Recent news reports about a Canadian company’s efforts to force an Elko County ranch to sell land for gold mining highlighted one potential flaw in the state’s eminent domain statute, but the most antiquated portion of the law has nothing to do with extracting precious metals.
That dubious distinction is tied, instead, to the sugar beet industry.
The section of state law that spells out when it is legal for one party to take land away from another notes that eminent domain may be exercised for “pipelines to conduct any liquids connected with the manufacture of beet sugar.”
Don’t bet on this provision of the law being used anytime soon, though. Statistics kept by the U.S. Agriculture Department show that the last time Nevada farmers grew sugar beets was in 1966, when 7,900 tons were produced.
Former state archivist Guy Rocha, an authority on the state’s eminent domain laws, says the sugar beet provision is an example of “malpractice on the part of the state Legislature to favor a special interest. You tell me how the hell sugar beets should even have been included in the law.”
Historical narratives make reference to a sugar beet factory that H.W. and Fred Hinze built for $600,000 in Fallon. The Nevada Sugar Co. plant, which opened in 1911, was the largest commercial venture in Churchill County and the first such factory in the state.
That’s also the year the Legislature added the sugar beet industry to the eminent domain law, according to Don Williams, research director of the Legislative Counsel Bureau. Because legislative history is spotty before the 1970s, Williams says he did not know why the sugar beet was included in the law.
But Jay Davison, area specialist in forage and alternative crops for the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension in Fallon, says he has a theory. Because the Fallon plant was a processing factory that converted the awkward-shaped, foot-long beets into liquid sugar, it would have needed a way to transport the liquid to a refining plant for conversion to the granulated form of sugar ready for market.
Davison figures Nevada Sugar wanted eminent domain authority so it could construct pipelines from its plant to the nearest railhead about two miles away. From there, the liquid would have been transported by rail out of state, Davison surmises.
Davison also agrees with Rocha’s take on the law. “To even think we still have some sort of eminent domain law protecting sugar beet growers is crazy,” Davison says.
The industry was powerful in neighboring Utah at the time the law was adopted because the Mormon church was heavily invested in sugar beets. The church had built a thriving sugar beet business in Utah, with cooperation from the railroad industry there.
The church-owned Utah-Idaho Sugar Co. wound up with a controlling interest in the Nevada factory in 1917. But after having operated in fits and starts in the preceding years, the Fallon plant was closed for good after the 1917 season because of poor performance.
Somehow, though, the sugar beet’s status as a favored industry in Nevada survived.
The job of ferreting out antiquated laws is in the hands of the Legislative Counsel Bureau, which periodically recommends to the Legislature that certain outdated statutes be jettisoned. One that’s set for submission to the 2011 Legislature for removal is a provision in Chapter 581 that authorized creation of an Advisory Council on the Metric System, for example.
Having learned of the sugar beet industry’s eminent domain powers from the Sun, Lorne Malkiewich, the bureau’s director, has his staff looking into having it follow the metric system council into oblivion.
The deadline for the bureau to recommend removal of outdated laws has passed for the 2011 session, but Williams says he’ll alert his staff about the sugar beet provision, with the possibility of having it erased from the statute in 2013. There’s also still a chance that the sugar beet could be stricken from eminent domain laws next year if the Legislature decides to revisit that statute on its own.
“Sometimes things are put into the law where there’s no good explanation for it,” Williams says. “The sugar beet could be in that category.”