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Reprinted by permission from The Rhodes Real Estate Review (Mt. Desert, Maine, January 1999)

Unjustified Privileges of Environmental Non-Profits

By Carol W. LaGrasse

Marie Hill telephoned me last week to say that her husband Joe had died. "He was just tired," she said. "The fight killed him."

The pro se appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court he was working on all year was the elderly couple's only remaining hope after losing their beautiful 1,100-acre dairy farm overlooking Buzzard's Bay in Massachusetts.

Their financial problems began in 1994, when they received a subdivision permit from the Town of Dartmouth. They needed the return from the small development on their farm to raise funds to buy equipment, but a non-profit environmental group, Friends of Russell Mills (FORM), sued the Hills and sustained the Town in lawsuits to obstruct the Hills' financial plans for several years. Although the environmental group lost the lawsuits, the Hills were ultimately bankrupted. They lost their house and farm worth $20 million. Now the environmentalists in the vicinity are pronouncing that the land is being saved for farming and quality development.

Here in New York State, an environmental group, Scenic Hudson and its affiliated land trust, has been campaigning to obstruct the expansion of gravel production of a Fishkill concrete products manufacturer, Jay Montfort. One of their first actions was to sue to contest the Town of Fishkill zoning which was beneficial to Montfort. Montfort has now spent over eight years and $2 million trying to obtain a mining permit, or at least a denial of his application from the State Department of Environmental Conservation. The latest obstruction is the environmental consideration of impact on rattlesnakes that may inhabit adjacent land acquired by Scenic Hudson Land Trust.

Land trusts enjoy exemptions from real estate taxes while they mainly hold property for a flip to the government. But their benefit to local communities which absorb the tax shift from their exemptions is questionable. In fact, the aggressive tactics of land trusts and other environmental groups impede the local economy. Their preserved properties may not even be open to the public which absorbs the tax burden.

Land trusts perform many government functions on a monopoly and unscrutinized basis. One example is the Natural Heritage program data base developed on each state's environmental department for the purpose of implementing laws to protect certain species. Only the Nature Conservancy, a land trust which is the nation's wealthiest environmental group, with assets over $2 billion, receives the non-competitive contracts to appraise land for special wildlife and habitats under the Natural Heritage Program.

All of the acquisition deals between New York State's DEC and land trusts are confidential, which is allowed under Freedom of Information law, and the land transactions are not competitively bid. In fact, the State's confusing publicized "Open Space" acquisition policy is paralleled by secret acquisition maps kept in conjunction with the land trusts for key areas like Governor George Pataki's home county, Putnam County.

Government policies involving the powers, privileges and utilization of environmental groups such as land trusts deserve serious scrutiny and overhaul.

Carol W. LaGrasse is president of the Property Rights Foundation of America, Inc., a nationwide grassroots organization dedicated to protecting the fundamental right to own and utilize private property as guaranteed in the United States Constitution. She is a retired civil and environmental engineer and resides in Stony Creek in New York's Adirondack mountains, where the Property Rights Foundation is based.

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