The proposal by some Virginia legislators to address the problem of sprawl development by relying on publicly funded land purchases -- apparently in lieu of zoning, impact fees and other regulatory tools -- offers a solution that is unfair, unnecessary and ultimately ineffectual [Metro, Dec. 12 ].
That public purchases of private lands have their place, in order to create parks and for certain other public purposes, is undeniable. The mistake is in thinking that land purchases should be the only or even the main way to conserve land and manage land uses.
The proposal would require the massive use of tax dollars to pay for land value created, in large measure, by public investments and the investments of other private firms and individuals. Private land value reflects the benefits conferred by, for example, investments in roads and schools and in job-creating businesses, which create a demand for new uses that private, undeveloped land can support.
It is unfair to ask the public to pay for land value twice -- once by helping to create it in the first place and second by buying the land from the owner at its market value. The unfairness is compounded because land values also reflect the effects of neighbors' compliance with reasonable land-use restrictions, which raises the value of developable land by making the community a more attractive place.
The proposal to rely on acquisition in lieu of regulation also is unnecessary, because neither the original intentions of the drafters of the Bill of Rights, including Virginia's own James Madison nor the rulings of the Supreme Court bar the use of regulatory measures to limit and channel development. While the Supreme Court is supportive of property rights, it repeatedly has rejected the idea that an owner is entitled to the potential profits from developing his or her land. That is why the courts across the country routinely have upheld forest-use or agricultural-use zoning, techniques that could go a long way toward protecting Virginia's beautiful working landscapes without gouging the taxpayers.
Finally, at least to the extent that the acquisition strategy relies exclusively on purchases from willing sellers, it would be ineffectual in controlling unsightly and destructive development because it fails to address the "holdout" problem. For example, a policy to stop development along a scenic ridge will founder if one uncooperative owner decides to build there anyway. Likewise, an investment of millions of dollars in preserving an agricultural valley would be largely wasted if one owner insisted on subdividing a key parcel for development (and then marketing the units at high prices based on their proximity to protected conservation lands).
Land acquisition has a place in land conservation. But it is a limited place.
-- John D. Echeverria
directs the Environmental Policy Project at Georgetown University Law Center.