Property owners could gain rights Bill would compensate for loss after government restricts use of land

Nation's Housing

July 21, 1996|By Kenneth R. Harney

ANYONE WHO OWNS or plans to buy real estate should watch what happens to a key piece of legislation -- the Property Rights Act -- when the Senate takes it up as scheduled before the August congressional recess.

The bill (S. 605) attempts to deal with a fundamental real estate problem: When a federal government agency reduces the economic value of the property you own to fulfill a public purpose, such as protecting the environment or saving endangered species, shouldn't you have the right to be compensated for your economic loss? And shouldn't you be able to obtain redress without having to fight for years, at potentially huge personal legal expense, through the courts?

If you buy a few acres of dry woodland, and obtain all required local permits to build a retirement house on the parcel, should you be subject to an economic wipeout if the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers subsequently declares your property to be a wetland, and prohibits construction or landscaping of any sort?

Under current federal law, as interpreted by federal regulatory agencies, the answer to questions like these is straightforward: The loss in value or use is the property owner's problem, not the federal agency's. In fact, the property owner may well be subject to fines, prosecution or even a jail term if any disturbance of the land occurred, however innocently.

Under the Property Rights Act, the answer would be starkly different: If the federal agency's restriction on the use of your acreage after you bought it reduced its economic value, you'd have the right to be compensated for your loss, provided it represented a 33 percent decline in use or value of the affected portion of the property.

Here's how the bill would work for real estate owners facing potential administrative actions under either the Clean Water Act (wetlands) or the Endangered Species Act:

Federal agency personnel no longer would be allowed to enter privately owned property without written consent of the owners, and would have to share any data collected during their visits. You could, as a property owner, challenge the data, their accuracy or the method used to collect them.

Under the new bill, you'd be aware that a study of your property was under way, and you could bring in experts of your own to challenge the regulators' findings, before you got hit with a formal legal order restricting your rights as an owner.

You would get the right as an individual to challenge the affected area's boundaries imposed by an agency under either the Endangered Species Act or the Clean Water Act.

Pub Date: 7/21/96

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