For Release: October 16, 1995
ALBANY The nationwide private property rights movement burst into full flower in New York State over the weekend, as landowners large and small gathered in Albany to seek protection from government policies that erode the value of their property.
The first New York State Conference on Property Rights drew 150 conferees from Long Island to Chatauqua County and from the Southern Tier to the Adirondacks.
"Protection of property rights is the best guarantee of environmental protection," said the conference keynoter, Dr. Roger Pilon, founder of the Cato Center for Constitutional Studies in Washington. "After all, who is a better steward of the environment than he who owns it?"
Who owns the land is the question that separates landowners and environmental activists. Many environmental activists assert that land and natural resources are owned in common and, therefore, can be controlled by the government without compensation to the specific property owner.
Those who hold title to the land pay the taxes and upkeep costs, rely on it for food or income and plan to pass it on to their heirs support legitimate environmental protection, but believe they alone should not have to pay for policies that benefit all citizens.
No one has the right to pollute or to endanger others, and the U.S. Constitution's "police power" provides government with ample power to protect citizens from harm, Pilon said.
However, some environmental laws for example, zoning regulations to Promote "open space" or protect a species are not designed to eliminate a risk of harm, but to Promote a purported public good. These place a disproportionate burden on the owners of open space, who are asked to suffer a reduction in the value of their land for the public good. It is unfair for government to ask a small group of citizens to pay for a benefit enjoyed by all, Pilon said. If the government decides open space should be preserved or a species protected, it should purchase the land from the property owner at a fair price.
The entire property rights movement, Pilon said, can be summed up in a simple phrase: "Stop stealing our property. Pay for it."
Federal and state governments complain that they can't afford to pay landowners because they're broke, Pilon said, but "so is every common mugger."
And landowners cannot afford to forego payment. Farmers and forest owners use the land as collateral to invest in new equipment and technology in order to remain competitive, participants said.
Sen. Owen Johnson, R-Babylon, chairman of the Senate Environmental Conservation Committee, and Assemblyman Robert Prentiss, R-Colonie, said the message of the property rights movement has reached Albany, although New York lags behind 18 other states that have enacted protections for property owners.
"Any effort to infringe on private property rights in New York by the federal government or interest groups will be resisted and rejected," said Sen. Johnson.
Landowners are entitled to legal protection, said Attorney Dennis Phillips of Glens Falls, chairman of the Adirondack Fairness Coalition. A bill to Protect property owners was not acted on in the New York State Legislature last year. It is expected to be reintroduced in 1996.
Environmental groups usually have good intentions when they pursue regulations, but don't comprehend the negative impact on the value of property and don't realize a single law can "destroy a lifetime of work," Sen. Johnson said.
Assemblyman Prentiss said many landowners have reached the point of "utter frustration" because "so many of us believe both in preserving the environment and protecting property rights."
Sheila Powers, president of the Albany County Farm Bureau, said there is no conflict between the two ideals because those who live off the land are the most responsible stewards of all. "A farmer's land is his workplace," she said. "We have the greatest incentive to protect our lands. Our future is tied to the property."
The increasing threats to landowners coincide with an evolution in thinking in state government, which has grown increasingly hostile to local interests, said James E. Morgan of Delmar, a former assistant state attorney general. "Balance is no longer in the hands of local people," Morgan said. "Balance has swung to the bureaucracy ... Albany believes it knows best."
He warned conferees to be vigilant about new zoning laws which can be used either to Protect property rights or to create a community with one race, one ethnic group and one income level.
"Private property rights are human rights," said conference organizer Carol LaGrasse, president of the Property Rights Foundation of America. "Where property rights and freedom are denied, the economy and the family suffer."
On a practical level, as property rights erode, homeownership is moving out of reach for many New Yorkers. Robert Wieboldt, executive vice president of the New York State Builders Association, said building costs have increased 20 percent in recent years, but land costs have doubled and site improvement costs have tripled or quadrupled, as a result of new zoning laws and other regulations.
Ms. LaGrasse, who lives in the rural Adirondack community of Stony Creek, agreed: "Regulations in rural and urban areas are making homeownership by the poor nearly impossible."
Ms. Powers said local zoning in her rural Albany County community has been used to limit population. The irony is the community now has 100 fewer people than in 1860.
The conference was sponsored by the Property Rights Foundation of America, Inc., a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting the constitutional rights to own and use private property. Co-sponsors included the New York Farm Bureau, New York State Builders' Association, Delaware County Chamber of Commerce, Albany County Farm Bureau, Adirondack Fairness Coalition, Land Rights Letter Foundation, Inc., Long Island Builders Institute, New York State Chapter of the Land Improvement Contractors Association and the Ulster County Sportsmen.
For more information on future issue seminars or next year's property rights conference, please call the Property Rights Foundation at (518) 696-5748.
For more information: Carol LaGrasse: (518) 696-5748