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In defense of property rights

This is a post about agricultural easements and mineral rights.

But it very well could be a post about zoning and condo associations. I live in a very urban area so my daily encounters are with those. In my very liberal suburb, we turned down a daycare in a building down the street because of traffic concerns with drop offs. My condo association tells us we can't replace our back door for historic reasons. And we're not allowed to have a dishwasher. I didn't buy the condo though--it came with the Mama--and it's not the type of living I would choose otherwise.

Homeowner associations annoy me, too. Telling people they can't have flags or paint their house a certain color. Not that anybody wants to live next to a lime green and hot pink house. And we all get annoyed with the neighbor who fills their yard with trash and gnomes

There are legitimate needs and reasons to regulate property and behavior while on private property. I'm not so libertarian that I want to shrink government to the size of a bathtub so we can drown it. I'm not laissez-faire. And I'm actually pro-regulation in many things. Real estate is not one.

As I browse the ads around the country, one of the things I've been pondering is agricultural easements. On the surface, a great thing because they preserve farmland for future generations. I'm all in favor of that! Especially family farms and land that is ripe for development as the suburbs push farther into rural America. But...as a potential buyer there are downsides. Even if I planned to keep it agricultural.

For those who don't know, an agricultural easement is essentially a way that a landowner donates or gets a major tax break in exchange for a trust or local government to track future use of the property and limit its use to farming. You can still sell the land. Future buyers are just prohibited from...well, doing much. I get it. Seems like a great thing. But, as a potential buyer, why would I want somebody else nosing in my business?

It's my property, I can do what I want with it. That's the, you know, thousand year old common law interpretation of the way property rights work. As owner, you improve the land and get to use the riches. Or not. If I'm a savvy buyer, I'm thinking to myself, gee, yeah I want to put 100 sheep on that acreage at the moment. But what happens in 20 years when I decide I want to put in a bicycle race track? A windmill dealership? Make it a campground? That's not "development" in my book. Could still possibly be using the land wisely. It makes the parcel with the agricultural easement very unattractive. Very.

After a little research, other programs do something similar without the draconian measures. The Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program pays rural landowners to put former farmland (likely plowed) to rest for the growth of plantlife that prevents erosion. That program is entirely voluntary and renewable in, say, decade-long increments so that a new landowner could easily take the land out of the program for another purpose. It's a carrot, not a stick. I like that.

Then there's mineral rights. Today I was browsing land in my home state of Ohio...the eastern part sits over quite a bit of profit in minerals, gas, and oil. Almost all of the land I saw for sale did not come with these rights. Basically, you get the land but nothing underneath it that could possibly make you wealthy. That's already been spoken for. Pretty much the previous landowner screwed you over. Why would I want that property then?

Even the bleeding heart liberal in me isn't against drilling. Not on this basic level, at least. But that should be up to the landowner of that particular piece of property at any given time. If the property changes hands, an oil or gas company should have to come calling again to re-bargain the terms all over again. It's only fair to the new owners. And it certainly doesn't seem fair that current landowners--potentially myself included--should be able to screw future generations out of what might be theirs because of my greed.

It certainly would alter the discussion we're having nationally about fossil fuels if mineral rights were something major business had to scratch and claw at a little harder. If they want to run a pipeline from Canada to transport the most polluting kind of oil there is, fine. But they need to have to contact each and every land owner along the way, pay a fair price, and know that at any time the next landowner may want to kick them off. Not much incentive to build in that, is there?

Just a different way of looking at the topic...as a buyer. It certainly changes some of the conversations we have politically to realize that individuals should get first dibs over basic things like land. And corporations and governments should butt out.

Quite an idea from a liberal, I know. An individual farmer with small acres is sure a lot less likely to dump tons of manure into a major river than an industrial farm. A small business is probably not going to pollute the air with chemicals the way big business will. Call it a radical liberal idea that in between bigger government and corporate interests there is progressive populism. Power to the people, indeed.

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