Property Rights Movement

The property rights movement has had a significant impact on the nation's environmental policies since 1980. The groups identified with the movement commonly oppose federal regulation or intrusion on land that is privately held, especially in cases where federal involvement is in the form of environmental laws that limit the owner's full or partial use of the land. The movement began with the Sagebrush Rebellion of the mid-1970s, when legislators from states in western United States sought the transfer of federal public lands to state control.

Researchers have identified numerous groups and organizations that fall under the general classification of the environmental opposition, one of which is the property rights movement. These groups commonly oppose federal regulation or intrusion related to land that is privately held, especially environmental laws that limit the owner's full or partial use of the land. This segment of activists is distinct from the wise use movement, which grew out of the Sagebrush Rebellion of the mid-1970s. Wise use advocates support an antigovernment regulatory agenda related to the use of public land and resources, where the property rights movement is based on the use of privately held land.

The property rights movement first surfaced in the early 1990s with local grassroots organizations made up of individuals seeking to develop their own property, usually by building a home, clearing out trees or brush, or draining a wetland . Many of the landowners had been unaware of federal regulations and permits that could thwart their efforts, such as provisions of the Clean Water Act or the Endangered Species Act. After being prohibited from developing their properties by the federal government, they often joined other frustrated property owners, usually in their area or neighborhood, who were similarly prohibited from doing what they wanted with their land. The "members" of the movement rarely joined a specific, formal organization; more commonly, they shared grievances against the government based on their individual disputes. They would, however, rely upon an organization for legal advice and updates on land regulations that would affect them.

The property rights movement has been most active in regions in the eastern and southern United States, where title to land is often in a family's name for many generations. Historically, there has been an assumption that the right to control the land belongs to the titleholder , regardless of changes in the law or public policy. Many activists are farmers, ranchers, or rural or beachfront property owners who are unaware of the ecological value of their land until they decide to develop it. This has led to a national debate over competing land-related interests—the rights of the property owner to use the land versus the government's interest in controlling pollution, protecting wildlife and their habitat, and managing ecosystems or even other landowner's property.

Property rights stem from English common law and the Magna Carta , although there has been an evolution in legal interpretation of those rights since the 1920s. Most of the recent litigation has dealt with the concept of federalism, and more specifically, the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. One of the clauses in the amendment refers to "takings"—a requirement that the government cannot take privately owned land for public use without compensating the owner for the value of the land. University of Chicago law professor Richard Epstein created an intellectual basis for the property rights movement in 1985 in Takings: Private Property and the Power of Eminent Domain. This book placed the takings clause in the context of wilderness designations, endangered species, and wetlands protection.

The takings issue has often resulted in a private property owner seeking compensation from the government by filing a suit before the U.S. Court of Federal Claims or the U.S. Supreme Court. Since 1987, the courts have frequently ruled that federal regulations like the Clean Water Act that deny the owner the economically viable use of the land must pay the owner for the loss of the use of the land. The government further expanded the rights of property owners with an executive order by President Ronald Reagan and with regulations that called for government agencies to evaluate the risk of unanticipated takings. The 1988 policy calls for the federal government to budget funds for a takings impact analysis that property owners feel protects their constitutional rights, although the law continues to evolve over these issues as movement activists continue to press for what they believe are their constitutional right to compensation.



Epstein, Richard. (1985). Takings: Private Property and the Power of Eminent Domain. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wise, Charles R. (1992). "The Changing Doctrine of Regulatory Taking and the Executive Branch." Administrative Law Review 44 (Spring):404.

Yandle, Bruce, ed. (1995). Land Rights: The 1990s' Property Rights Rebellion. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Internet Resource

Meltz, Robert. (1995). "The Property Rights Issue." CRS Reports for Congress. Available from .

Jacqueline Vaughn Switzer

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