Outrage Over Property Rights Is 30 Years Too Late
By Michael Pattinson
Finally, the public outrage.
For 30 years across America, local, state and federal governments have been begging, borrowing and stealing trillions of dollars of private property with little or no compensation — and little or no outrage.
Any voices raised in protest were drowned out by the cheering of environmentalists who were happy that their favorite plants and animals would have a place to live on millions of acres of free land.
But in Connecticut, the Supreme Court allows a city to take a few homes — even when it pays for them — and the anger falls like acid rain.
Better now than never.
The city in Connecticut had its reasons for taking those homes. Cities always do.
But for the first 180 years of our republic, the courts really did take property rights seriously. Judges insisted that private property really was private, and that government could only take it under extreme circumstances. And then, of course, it had to pay for it.
But for the last 30 years, we've been on a slippery slope of government land grabbing. At the federal level, the Endangered Species Act has outlawed the private use of private land on tens of millions of acres throughout America.
Of course, few say that private use has been "outlawed," though it has. They say it has been "set aside." George Orwell was right: control the word, control the thought.
In California alone, 5.4 million acres have been "set aside" for the red-legged frog. Two million more acres have been set aside for sheep, shrimp, snails and grasshoppers. Together, this is larger than the entire state of Connecticut, larger than all of the urbanized land in California.
A recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife report shows that taking — or “setting aside” — just a small portion of this land in California will result in an economic loss of $965 million and 259,814 foregone housing opportunities.
It can be assumed that this is a modest estimate because the same Fish and Wildlife Service calculated that the 500,000 acres it wanted to “set aside” for the gnat catcher could be done at no cost — zero.
Free land. Imagine that. Or could it be that it is not really free? It's just that someone else is paying. Too many people no longer want to know.
The list goes on all across America. The piping plover enjoys 508 miles of free waterfront property in nine states adjoining the Great Lakes. In Arizona, the pygmy owl gets 800,000 acres free and clear, with not a penny going to the people who own any of this property.
More than 20 million people are crammed into the 800,000 acres that make up Los Angeles, New York, Dallas, Atlanta and Boston. Meanwhile, 78 pygmy owls are given 800,000 acres of land in Arizona. That's almost 10,000 acres per owl.
At Camp Pendleton, the land grabbers tried to take 63,000 acres for a microscopic shrimp that is born, lives and dies in a mud puddle within three weeks. This is threatening our ability to train American troops.
If red-legged frogs had been found at the homes in Connecticut that everyone is now so upset about, the result for the home owners would have been the same, yet we never would have heard about it.
But we did, though this is far from the largest abuse of property rights in America.
However rapacious the federal government may be, local governments are positively predatory.
The headlines tell the story. Almost every day in California a newspaper trumpets the latest environmental "victory" over property owners. In just one week in June alone, city councils were reported to be trampling property rights in Monterey, Vallejo, Norco, El Segundo, Ventura, Yucaipa, Fairfield, Alamo, San Ramon, Contra Costa County, Castroville, Pajaro, San Joaquin, Murrieta, Temecula, San Diego, Carlsbad, Oceanside, and on and on and on. Day after day. Week after week. Year after year. For landowners big and small.
In Southern California today, the wholesale destruction of our property rights means that only 6.4% of San Diego residents can afford to buy an average-priced home. In Orange County, the number is 3.8%. The rest of the state is not much better off.
The implications for a whole generation unable to buy their first home are staggering — and catastrophic. Yet no one seems to notice.
To paraphrase Lenin, steal a few homes in Connecticut and that is a tragedy.
Steal hundreds of thousands in California and that is a statistic. But hardly a surprise.
Michael Pattinson is president of Barratt American and the former president of the California Building Industry Association.