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Sustainable development vs. private property rights

By Henry Lamb
web posted October 24, 2005

"Sustainable Development" is a term used to justify new policies that, inevitably, erode private property rights. Proponents of sustainable development are convinced that the collective benefits of these policies far outweigh the value of any individual's private property rights that may be lost. Apparently, most Americans are willing to accept this reasoning.

The people of New London, CT., through their elected officials, are taking the private property of several of its citizens to give to other private citizens who promise to pay more taxes. The people of Riviera Beach, FL., are planning to take the private property of nearly 6,000 citizens, to give to other private citizens who promise to pay more taxes. This practice has become quite acceptable over the last quarter-century.

The clear language of the Constitutional requirement that land taken by government be for "public use," has been changed by practice, to allow government to take land for "public benefit."

Having secured this new authority, which the Supreme Court validated in the recent Kelo decision, government has expanded its authority to restrict use of private property in a variety of ways which are said to provide a collective public benefit.

The King County ordinance, for example, which prohibits private land owners from using 65% of their land - without compensation - turns the U.S. Constitution on its head. The policy is justified, and acceptable because it is said to provide a collective public benefit of greater value than the loss suffered by the individual private property owners.

These are only a few examples of how sustainable development is eroding the principle of private property rights. These are big, gaudy examples. Sustainable development is permeating public policy through ordinances, rules and regulations that are rapidly sucking all the oxygen from the very idea that individuals have an inalienable right to own and use private property.

Nearly every county in the nation now has a comprehensive land use plan in place - or is developing a plan. The one thing all these plans have in common is the explicit goal of sustainable development.

These plans are not the result of local residents appealing to their elected officials, they are the result of state laws that require the counties to develop land use plans. Local voters did not besiege their state legislatures demanding this new law, it was the federal government which used financial "incentives and disincentives" to coerce the states to adopt this legislation. Throughout the 1990s, the federal government funded the American Planning Association's development of model legislation to be adopted by the states.

Why did the federal government decide to get into the business of telling private citizens how to use their private property? Because George H.W. Bush, under heavy public pressure from then-Senator Al Gore, and EPA administrator William K. Reilly, signed Agenda 21, the bible of sustainable development, adopted at the U.N. conference in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

Sixteen years earlier, this same William K. Reilly, then-head of the Conservation Foundation, was a member of the U.S. delegation to the U.N. Conference on Human Settlements in Vancouver, British Columbia. On behalf of the United States, he and the other delegates, signed a document that was the pre-cursor of Agenda 21. For the first time, this document set forth the U.N.'s policy on private property. The preamble to the document says:

"Land...cannot be treated as an ordinary asset, controlled by individuals and subject to the pressures and inefficiencies of the market. Private land ownership is also a principal instrument of accumulation and concentration of wealth and therefore contributes to social injustice.... Public control of land use is therefore indispensable...."
The policies established in this document, signed by the U.S. in 1976, are now being implemented across the nation, under the guise of sustainable development. Even a casual reading of this document, or of Agenda 21, clearly reveals why the principle of private property rights cannot co-exist with the principle of sustainable development.

Americans once believed private property to be an inalienable right, guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. Now, Americans who promote or accept sustainable development, believe it is right for the government to grant - or not - the privilege of ownership, and dictate the extent to which property may be used. America has forgotten the wisdom of its founders, who knew full well that without private property, there can be no freedom.

Henry Lamb is the executive vice president of the Environmental Conservation Organization (ECO), and chairman of Sovereignty International.

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