A Property Rights Defender Responds
When my husband and I moved to the Adirondacks from New York City, we wanted to live in harmony with nature. We farmed organically and lived in a barn, heated by a log fire, until we completed our permanent home. We used recycled and local materials wherever we could.
We have continued to live this way to the extent we can. Today, however, I would be ashamed to encourage the environmental movement. Instead, I defend private property rights.
The national property rights movement draws its inner fire from the modern persecution of individual property owners. This persecution is accomplished in the name of lofty goals espoused by environmental groups. These include preserving multi-million-acre areas that are supposedly “ecologically sensitive,” protecting real and imagined wetlands and wildlife habitats, and upholding multitudinous building and land-use restrictions on the grounds of community design, historic preservation, water pollution control, and scenic preservation.
The actual effect is to take away the rights of ordinary people.
In Massachusetts, Marie and Joe Hill lost their house and farm, worth $20 million. All they wanted was to build a small subdivision on their property so that they could buy equipment for their farm. They had a permit from the town of Dartmouth, but an “environmental” group, Friends of Russell Mills, sued them and kept them in court. After several years, the Hills were bankrupted.
Jay Montfort has a stone aggregate business, part of his Fishkill, New York, concrete products firm. Montfort has spent over nine years and $4 million trying to obtain a permit to expand his gravel mining. He hasn’t received a permit. He hasn’t received a denial, either–just one obstacle after another. The current problem is the possible impact on rattlesnakes. An “environmental” group, Scenic Hudson, has been fighting him every inch of the way.
Jim Morris bought 272 acres of land in Johnsburg, New York , in 1988, to provide homes for his children and future grandchildren. He could meet the state’s special Adirondack zoning, which requires eight-acre lots for home building in that location, but he has been opposed year after year by the Adirondack Park Agency, and environmentally conscious townspeople. For example, he waited two years for a permit to cross a 15-foot wetland, while an environmental lobbyist received a permit for a 467-foot wetland crossing in 42 days. Morris was finally bankrupted.
The environmental movement appears to be comfortable with pursuing its goals through central planning and regulation, no matter how much these rules hurt individual Americans. Ideology justifies ever-heavier penalties for nonconformance, adherence to increasingly minuscule regulation, and greater subservience to government control over land use. Environmental leaders consider lengthy federal prison terms appropriate penalties for minor wetlands encroachments. They uphold prohibitions against using private property in order to protect dubious habitats for rattlesnakes, bats, and rats.
Such controls and prohibitions represent a change. Historically, the American legal system respected private property rights. When highways, schools, other major public buildings, and parks are to be created, the government abides by rules of procedure. If consent to sell is withheld, the government can condemn the property but it must compensate the owner in the amount agreed upon by the court. Whatever faults exist with this system, the remedies in place for the private property owner reflect respect for private property rights.
Laws enacted to accomplish more recent societal goals have lost restraint, however. In addition to eroding the property rights guaranteed in the Fifth Amendment, they are eroding the privacy rights guaranteed in the Fourth Amendment, the right to a representative government guaranteed in Article IV, and other rights. These rights are especially succumbing under laws to protect the environment, to accomplish land-use planning, and to conduct the “war” on drugs.
The environmental movement makes a regular practice of attacking property rights organizations as anti-environmental. It is easier to demonize the property rights movement than to deal with human rights questions. Through the laws that they have enacted, environmentalists are forcing private owners to pay for public goods. This means making some people bear public burdens that should be borne by society as a whole.
You wouldn’t know it by listening to environmental activists, but the property rights movement did not attack nuisance laws or even clean water and clean air legislation except where these became a venue for land-use controls. The property rights movement never held to the belief attributed to it that “people can do anything they want with their own property.” Instead, the property rights movement arose because environmental government began taking private property through regulation without compensation.
Yet researchers have shown that the environment can be protected, often more effectively, in the context of respect for private property rights. One study, “Swamped–How America Achieved No Net Loss,” by Jonathan Tolman (available from the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.), shows that wetlands preservation is far less expensive and more successful under voluntary methods such as the Wetland Reserve Program than under regulation by the Army Corps of Engineers under the Clean Water Act. PERC, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and others have reported convincingly about the success of private wildlife conservation.
It used to be self-evident that conservation could be done by any property owner. The early land trusts (most of which have unfortunately evolved into land agents for government) were private conservation groups, as are hunting clubs to this day. Middle-class people would sometimes just buy the property next door if they wanted to preserve it; they did not resort to confiscation by zoning.
Today, the government has techniques of preservation that are logical and just–purchases, easements, leases, subsidies, and education. But the government also uses regulation, which varies from minor restrictions to prohibitions of all use and may include forcing a person to purchase or create “mitigation” wetlands. These environmental regulations, not opposition to environmental protection, were the genesis of the private property rights movement. Even though there is no inherent reason for a conflict between private property rights and environmental protection, the environmental movement has created an enemy.
Carol W. LaGrasse is the president of the Property Rights Foundation of America, Inc., based in Stony Creek, New York.