Monday, September 8, 2008

Property Rights in a Changing World

By Howard Meinke

Personal property rights are a cornerstone of our democracy. Since the earliest settlers, the concept of private ownership and control of homestead and farm and field has been jealously protected. As the country developed and population grew, people settled ever more closely together in towns and cities, and the meaning of property rights slowly and necessarily changed.

The need to build public infrastructure for the benefit of the country as a whole caused dilution of personal rights as it enlarged communal rights. A railroad right of way through a citizen’s north forty was approved and the track laid when the need was demonstrated.

It became obvious that a pig farm or slaughterhouse does not coexist with residential housing or retail business and that many common and necessary property uses do not comfortably coexist with others. Thus the zoning that we are familiar with today came into being. This zoning concept is nothing more than a rethinking and broadening of property rights to create an obvious societal, communal benefit.

Today we are constantly learning more and more about the interconnection of marshes and swamps and watercourses to the health of the bays and oceans, then to our potable water supply and finally to the precarious and threatened world food supply. We are learning the damaging effects of road run off, the poisonous effect of unmanaged human and animal waste and the careless use of fertilizers and pesticides.

As we amass this knowledge, changes in how we use the land that borders swamps, marshes, creeks and bays is inevitable. Where older houses may sit on desirable waterfront locations boasting bright green lawns to the water and less obviously cesspools in the beach, new construction is prevented and modification to these older houses is ever more closely controlled.

Here again the personal property rights of the waterfront owner are being modified to mesh with the property rights of all the other citizens. For some this is a difficult realization. But it is inevitable and the American way that advances in knowledge and scientific understanding as exemplified by the Local Waterfront Revitalization Program, bring continuous modification of policy.