'If I can't use it, pay me for it,' landowners cry New property-rights movement emerging


WASHINGTON -- Across the nation, the battle cry of landowners is: "If I can't use it, pay me for it," planning officials say.

In Maryland and elsewhere, local government planners are meeting increasing resistance from an emerging "property rights movement," according to those attending a convention of the American Planning Association (APA) here yesterday.

"Increasingly, it's 'property-rightists' vs. environmentalists," said Karen Finucan, a spokeswoman for the planning association.

As regulations proliferate related to environmental protection, aesthetics and affordable housing, the number of defiant property owners heading to the courts and using lawsuits to demand compensation for lost property rights probably will continue to multiply, said Connie Cooper, the APA president.

Maryland will be one of the battlegrounds for clashes between those advocating land-use regulations and those in the burgeoning property-rights movement, said Gus Bauman, chairman of the Montgomery County Planning Board.

"It all comes together over the issue of private property rights vs. public rights," Mr. Bauman said.

In Maryland, Mr. Bauman anticipates more legal claims for compensation for lost property rights from owners of land on the shoreline of the Chesapeake Bay, an area facing increasing environmental regulation.

For many Maryland landowners, limits on use of their property could intensify as the state plays an enlarged role in the planning process, Mr. Bauman said.

The state will have more regulatory authority beginning in October, when the state's new Economic Growth, Resource Protection & Planning Act becomes effective. The legislation, passed during this year's session of the General Assembly, is scheduled to be signed into law by Gov. William Donald Schaefer May 26.

When the new law is enacted, it will, for the first time, make the state a significant factor in growth management, along with Maryland's town and county governments, said Edwin Thomas, a planner at the state planning office in Baltimore.

More layers of regulation mean more problems for landowners trying to develop their property to its maximum possible use, planning officials say.

A case considered pivotal in the property-rights arena, Lucas vs. South Carolina Coastal Council, is expected to be decided this month by the U.S. Supreme Court.

A decision in favor of Mr. Lucas, a developer, will mean that planners in Maryland and beyond will have to exercise greater caution when they develop regulations that strip property owners of their rights, said Mr. Bauman, the Montgomery County official.

In particular, they must provide landowners with "escape hatches" that allow them at least minimal use of their property, let them transfer development rights to other land, or sell such transferred rights, he said.

"Instead of using meat axes, sometimes planners will have to use scalpels," Mr. Bauman said.

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