P.O. Box 75, Stony Creek, New York 12878 - 518/696-5748
The right to own private property is a fundamental American freedom that
guarantees personal liberty and promotes economic prosperity.
Thank you for your belief in the cause of fundamental private property rights. We have persevered together through thick and thin, and, as a result of our mutual effort, much has been accomplished. I am deeply grateful to you and the many others who work alongside us for making possible the achievements of the Property Rights Foundation of America.
This fall we were congratulated on beginning another decade of annual conferences, as we held our Eleventh Annual National Conference on Private Property Rights at the Holiday Inn Turf at Albany, N.Y. It was an exciting, valuable, and satisfying occasion. The speakers were absolutely fabulous.
To the rapt attention of his listeners, Roger Pilon, J.D., Ph.D., Vice President for Legal Affairs and Director of the Center for Constitutional Studies at Cato Institute discoursed on property rights as the foundations were laid during ancient times, down through the Founders, and to the present, where, experiencing the fruits of the New Deal, we bear the load of the welfare state's zoning and other regulatory takings, rent control, and unrestricted eminent domain. Over the twentieth century, America has squandered the principles of the Constitution, Dr. Pilon said.
William Perry Pendley delivered the dynamic keynote address on the new battle for the West, a battle fought by Mountain States Legal Foundation, of which he is President and Chief Legal Officer. Among his crucial successes, Mr. Pendley has fought for the rights of ranchers and resource-based producers against the depredation of the Endangered Species Act and for property owners so that they are granted compensation when trails are imposed on old railroad rights-of-way through their property. With three trips to the U.S. Supreme Court, he has succeeded in defeating laws establishing racial preference and in protecting the right of contract. When Mr. Pendley won the battle against racial preferences in 1995, Justice Scalia pronounced, "We are only one race, American."
The conference day was truly inspiring and densely packed with information as sixteen top speakers from across the country regaled the participants on areas of their expertise and leadership ranging from the navigable waterways access controversy (John W. Marwell, Attorney, Shamberg Davis and Hollis, Mt. Kisco, N. Y.), challenging the Greens as they use capitalism against capitalism (Thomas J. Borelli, Ph.D., Action Fund Management, New York, N.Y.), animal rights terrorism (Teresa Platt, Fur Commission USA, Coronado, Cal.), to National Heritage Areas and World Heritage Sites (Peyton Knight, The National Center for Public Policy Research, Washington, D.C.)
But I have more to report. As the year 2007 is drawing to a close, it has brought accomplishments that I hope you'll be pleased to hear about.
As you know, we have worked to defeat UNESCO-based landscape protection designations in the United States for over a decade. Since our successful effort to assure that the UNESCO Catskill Mountains Biosphere Reserve application was withdrawn, no new Biosphere Reserve designations in the U.S. have been made.
UNESCO's other landscape preservation device is the designation of World Heritage Sites, which are the focus of the Convention for the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, to which the United States is a party. This year, the National Park Service Office of International Affairs put forth a new round of 36 UNESCO World Heritage Site applications. We let PRFA participants know about these applications as soon as possible, encouraging people to take action.
Not all of the applications dealt with landscape preservation, but the one to protect Olana, the main World Heritage Site proposed within New York State, was indeed a landscape preservation measure and would have added a new layer of influence to control land-use in the already heavily regulated Hudson River valley.
Olana is the estate of Frederic E. Church, the premier artist of the Hudson River School of landscape painting. Church's eclectic Moorish style Italianate villa has questionable architectural merit, but the ponderous structure overlooks the Hudson valley, and, in the past, the non-profit organization connected with the estate has used various venues under environmental review procedure to slow or stop development in the valley because the view from the estate might be changed.
However, last month, the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO removed Olana from the list of eleven pre-approved applications that would advance to the next stage of review and ultimate approval by UNESCO in Paris. The commission's stated reason for the change of heart was that Church was a "second tier" artist.
The Olana Partnership, which is the organization that submitted the application, expressed shock that Church was relegated to a status that disqualified his estate for UNESCO recognition. The local newspaper, The Independent, quoted the organization's president:
However, no matter how much an individual may admire Church's breathtaking landscapes, those familiar with American art know that he is not included in the roster of world class artists. In fact, when I was a young woman awed by Church's and Cole's landscapes hanging at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I was dismayed to discover that Church was skipped over by art historians. The reason was soon obvious to me: In American landscape painting, these great painters reached the pinnacle, but landscapes were being overtaken by the European school of impressionism, then by cubism and soon by the great upheavals of twentieth century art. Church's name is not in the standard art history books that I have seen.
The newspaper also covered a proverbial other side to the story. Albert Wassenhove, a citizen in nearby Ghent, was an effective critic of the application. Mr. Wassenhove had read a PRFA publication pointing to the potential negative implications of UNESCO World Heritage Site designation and had done further investigating.
"If they get this recognition and protection under UNESCO, and somebody like a fruit farmer or maybe an industry wants to put something that's in Olana's view, then all of a sudden a group of people having a tea party up there are going to say 'that's in our viewshed,'" Mr. Wassenhove was quoted as saying.
"Where are we going to fly the U.N. flag up there, above the Stars and Stripes or below it?" he asked, according to The Independent on October 26.
I was quoted as a "louder voice who lives further up the Hudson River, in the foothills of the Adirondacks."
"In some ways, the Hudson is America's Rhine and it's beautiful. But in other respects it's been a major industrial and commercial route and we're losing sight of that," reporter Rob Puglisi quoted from an interview with me earlier this fall.
"It would be fine if the World Heritage Site designation were just an empty designation, like an honor, that couldn't be exploited for preservation, but that's not what can happen, as we saw relatively recently during the Clinton Administration," the reporter quoted from my interview.
So, victory is ours, at least for now. But the question is, was the reason for dropping the designation really because Church was a "second tier" artist?
This is unlikely, considering that it is widely known that Church's art is not recognized as having reached world status. This would have come out when the original list was narrowed down to 36 applications, and again when the list was narrowed to 19. Olana was only dropped when the list was being narrowed to the final 11 to be considered by UNESCO.
What had happened in the meantime? The answer is that local citizen opposition to the application had become visible. On July 28, another local newspaper, the Register-Star, had published a full-length opinion piece by Mr. Wassenhove, in which he stated, "Everyone reading this news should react with a firestorm of protest to stop this blatant attempt that will further erode the property rights of everyone within eyesight of Olana if UN protection is granted."
Considering the negative issues that were being effectively raised, it is likely that Park Service and UNESCO officials were concerned that the application would become a high profile controversy. It is a lot more palatable to quietly drop the application for a single controversial World Heritage Site than to weather a storm over that designation and watch it ultimately precipitate opposition to any new World Heritage Sites in the country.
It is my view that the Park Service dropped the application like a hot potato.
I'd like to briefly relate another important property rights victory in New York. Late this summer, we played a role in preserving the ancient law of adverse possession.
You may have read about the ruling by the New York State Court of Appeals upholding the adverse occupation by the Wallings of a sliver of property of their neighbors, the Przybylos, in a suburban neighborhood in Queensbury. It was a case that perfectly fit the purpose of the law of adverse possession, and included the open occupation of property beyond New York State's statute of limitations of ten years. Ironically, the occupation was entirely by accident, and the high court recognized that neither of the disputing neighbors knew the accurate boundary. But the Wallings were forced to litigate on all the tests that the law imposes related to adverse possession, including the possibility that they actually knew the correct boundary in advance. They won on even that basis, with the Court of Appeals rendering a decision that upheld the historic law of adverse possession in its entirety, even when the adverse party knows the correct boundary.
Afterwards, Mrs. Przybylo campaigned in the State Legislature to change the law. The Senator and Assembly Member representing the districts that include Queensbury actually succeeded in gaining bipartisan support for a bill that would prohibit adverse possession if the asserting party had knowledge of the correct boundary. Only two members of the legislature voted against the bill.
The sudden passage of this legislation flummoxed me, first, because the New York State Legislature almost never agrees on anything related to private property rights and, second, because this change would have had a profound negative effect on private property rights by eliminating the statute of limitations that permits property owners to quiet title to their land. On top of this fault, the bill was vaguely written.
I telephoned the Office of the Governor's Counsel. The Counsel told me the good news that the bill had arrived on the desk the day before. Only a few days remained before it would be signed.
I learned that the Real Property Law Section of the New York State Bar Association had issued a formal Memorandum in Opposition to the bill. One of the points in their memorandum was that, under the bill, a family that had been in possession of the property for a half century or longer could be ejected by another claiming to be a true owner, because the possessor cannot prove the state of mind of an ancestor long deceased.
I sent a statement in opposition by e-mail, pointing out problems with the bill, including the dangers in relying on the possession of a boundary survey as a test in disqualifying the adverse possessor, and urging that the law of adverse possession be kept as it stands.
Governor Eliot Spitzer vetoed the bill a few days later. His August 28, 2007 veto message pointed out:
The Governor's veto message made important points, including: "The addition of a 'knowledge' element to the statute of limitations would likely result in extensive litigation of virtually every adverse possession claim, and thus would undermine the certainly that the statute of limitations was established to provide. The protections against future litigation that a statue of limitations affords will be unavailable for this class of title claims, which could also impact the availability and cost of title insurance."
This was a clear and unique victory for private property rights in New York State.
The next accomplishment that I'd like to tell you about is that I was invited to represent PRFA with testimony before the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands of the Natural Resources Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives on October 30. Private property rights face a difficult mood right now in the Congress, making especially important the opportunity to convey the insights that the Property Rights Foundation of America has garnered over these many years. The topic at hand was H. R. 1286, the Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route National Historic Trail Designation Act, which is sponsored by Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D, N.Y.) to create a 600-mile trail through nine states from Rhode Island to Virginia.
My testimony focused on amending the bill to correct five typical deficiencies in the establishment of Park Service-related trails. I proposed amendments to eliminate the secrecy, to facilitate public participation and to base trail location on property owner consent, to prohibit piecemeal development of the trail, to prohibit municipal and non-profit false fronts for the Park Service, and to eliminate eminent domain either by the Park Service or municipal surrogates, as well as in the future to widen the trail.
Could anyone reading this letter not realize how private property rights underlie many profound issues affecting the people of our country?
I hope that this letter depicts to you how far-reaching your involvement and support affects just those sectors that I've mentioned and how far our information reaches out to the public and policy-makers.
There is another side that I'd like to point out in this letter.
The battle against zoning has been joined for decades. And no matter how successful we are in individual towns, villages and cities, it is just a fact that the issue will return, considering the bent of today's legislators to dole out government largess to promote more planning and zoning and to train enforcement officials to become more effective.
But local action is the key to success, and many rural towns can defeat zoning if their citizen leadership takes on this difficult, creative responsibility.
As I close this letter, I'd like to tell you about hard-won achievement reported from the grassroots of the Property Rights Foundation of America. The successful organizing represented by an October 30, 2007 letter to the editor just received from Bob Bell of Barton, N.Y., represents the heart of the PRFA. Here is a partial quotation from Bob's letter:
Roger Pilon, the internationally respected scholar who so eloquently opened our conference on October 13 and described the mindset that has brought property rights infringements like zoning to the land of the Constitution, grew up in a small town not far south of where my husband Peter and I live in Stony Creek. I see Bob Bell and Roger Pilon standing side by side, the intelligence and principle of this farmer facing his neighbors to defend private property rights at the government level closest to the people and the brilliant scholar who can elucidate these great principles to the leaders of policy and government at the national and international level.
I humbly give thanks that PRFA is able to participate with such extraordinary people to defend our freedom.
Please help us as generously as you can to make this work continue and be even more significant.
May God bless you during the Holiday Season and in the coming year.