Nature Noted

Notes on a changing Nature

Location: Bellville, Texas, United States

I never would have predicted this one

Sunday, November 28, 2004

Oregon and the politics of Land Use

Oregon's voters have thrown an apparent wrench in the land planning movement. The voters approved Measure 37, which essentially grandfathers land that was owned before strict land use zoning went into effect. Here's a synopsis. There's debate on both sides about what it really means. Will there be an avalanche of lawsuits as land owners seek relief, trying to get money out of the governments that restricted development usage on their land, or are there just a few properties that have been owned long enough to make a real difference?
I think the importance of all this beyond Oregon is the fundamental misunderstanding about the relationship between Americans and property. Not having set foot in Oregon, I can only look at the tea leaves in what has been written about land use policy there. It has always been portrayed as one of those places where planning works. That the cities are more livable, and the farmlands and wilderness are more preserved. And perhaps that really is so. But it's always a mistake to underestimate American's mythology of their land and their property rights. I couldn't stand it when the homeowners association in my old Orlando neighborhood would tell me what color I could paint my fence. And I bought the home knowing that there would be restrictions. So I can imagine the anger when somebody drops a ton of money (or Dad and Mom did) on a piece of property, and then can't sell it to maximize gain.
There are a couple of forces at play here. The first is an innate and growing mistrust of government. Second is market forces. Whether it's a desire to simply make more money, or just trying to keep financially afloat, landowners are skittish about restrictions on what they can do with their property. Combine the two, and it's that lumbering, unfeeling government stomping on my rights.
Land trusts run a big risk on running into this with a reliance on easements. Easements have become increasingly popular in the last decade. The owner sells away the right to develop the land, in exchange for cash or a tax break or both. Sounds great now, but I think we're going to see more and more trusts in court fighting to preserve developmental easements. They have many of the same characteristics of the Oregon planning laws. Somebody else telling me what I can do with my land. Particularly if I wasn't the person who signed that original deal. And just as in Oregon, I think the 30 year window of discontent is about right. Selling easements may make sense now, but in thirty years those pieces of paper may seem like ancient chains, just waiting to be broken.


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