If the government wants your land, better watch out!

Ann Corcoran

January 12, 1993|By Ann Corcoran

THERE is a new grass-roots movement building in the United States. The property rights of thousands of citizens are under attack by federal agencies and radical environmentalists. These citizens have begun to organize and are fighting back. What follows is my own horror story of why I became involved in the property-rights movement.

All my life I have wanted to be a farmer. I studied at Rutgers Agricultural College and Yale Forestry School, and went to work first for the Nature Conservancy, an environmental group, and then as a lobbyist for the National Audubon Society.

In 1985, my husband and I bought a 160-acre farm in Sharpsburg, near the Antietam Battlefield National Park. Soon after we had fixed up our homestead, we learned that the National Park Service planned to extend the boundaries of the park. Our farm was likely to fall within the proposed new boundaries. The reason given for the expansion was that the area was threatened with unsightly commercial development -- but we knew of no such threat.

Without alerting the local population, the Park Service had asked the Conservation Fund, a spinoff of the Nature Conservancy, to buy up farms around Antietam. The Conservation Fund would hold the farms briefly and then turn them over to the government. In return, the fund would get a handsome tax break.

My husband and I were horrified. We knew families who lived within the boundaries of the park, who lived in constant fear that the federal government might condemn their land. These families were under severe land-use restrictions and had to get written permission to make even minor changes such as painting the house or adding a garage -- or risk eviction.

Our community found out that the National Park Service had no evidence whatsoever that commercial development was imminent in the battlefield area. They simply believed they knew better than we how our land should be used, and they wanted it. We organized rallies and town meetings, finally causing the Park Service to slow its plans to expand the battlefield -- but not before my husband and I had bought a 150-acre adjoining farm to prevent them from enclosing us within the new boundaries.

At the height of the battle the Washington Post ran a story. To my surprise, I began to receive phone calls from people all over the country who'd had similar problems with federal agencies that unilaterally decide to impose unfair restrictions and rules on people's property or take it outright.

Horror stories abound. Soon after Alice Menks and her husband built a house in Graves Mill, Va., in 1984, they learned their lot was located on land designated for national park use by Congress in 1926. Nearby Shenandoah National Park had been formed on a part of this land, the rest had been left for private ownership. But the Park Service had begun urging the Conservation Fund secretly to buy up more of the property -- which could include the Menks' lot -- and donate it to the DTC government. To defend their interests, the Menks helped found Virginians for Property Rights in 1991. "The Park Service treated us like naughty children who needed to be kept in line," Mrs. Menks recalls. The group is still battling the Park Service over park expansion.

Families can be devastated by seemingly well-intentioned regulations that fail to take property rights into proper account. For example, when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) broadened its definition of wetlands in 1989 to include land with water 18 inches beneath the soil, Peggy Reigle and her husband had their retirement plans practically ruined.

Their entire 118-acre farm in Dorchester County -- all of it dry land -- was classified as wetlands. They had planned to finance their later years by dividing the property into large lots for single-family houses, but the new classification would make the lots virtually impossible to sell. Mrs. Reigle started the Fairness to Land Owners Committee to assist other landowners whose rights were threatened by regulation. Her group now has 11,000 members in 38 states.

Federal, state and local governments now have title to more than 40 percent of the land in the United States. Since 1965 the National Park Service alone has spent $3.3 billion buying private property or compensating owners for property seizure. Federal agencies are able to annex private property simply by regulating its use. But citizens who own such land are not properly compensated for the excessive restrictions placed on them by federal agencies.

Responding to the situation, the private-property-rights movement has now formed an umbrella group, the Alliance For America, supplying 500 member organizations and thousands of families with information on land-rights issues to defend themselves from government bureaucrats.

The government has a legitimate interest in protecting our nation's environment and natural and historical resources. But that concern has deteriorated into an attack on the legitimate rights of American citizens to own property. That's why we're fighting back.

Ann Corcoran is a farmer in Sharpsburg and editor of the Land Rights Letter.

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