Monday, April 21, 2008

The suburban land run

You occasionally hear someone express disgust about government takings of land - and often rightly so. I can see no justification for the government condemning a person's home just so the land can be sold to a private developer at a bargain. I interpret this principle liberally: If a tenant who cannot afford a car loses their building for a highway that's open only to motorized traffic, that's as much of a rogue land grab as any. Although the road may be publicly funded, it's actually not a public use if only cars can use it.

But what about a different kind of government taking? What I'm talking about is a sector principle for financially secure suburbanites. I call it the suburban land run, and it benefits those who are relatively affluent at the expense of the poor and working class.

I wish I had a few more hours to go into detail about this, because the geography of land use really is fascinating. To understand what I'm talking about, it might be best if you've seen a map of a suburban area that shows boundaries for each lot. This suburban land rush generally involves transferring land that was being preserved for public use to owners of large homes. This is accomplished by spontaneously expanding each lot so it goes on and on behind the house - until it gets to the point where it's closer to another large home. The result is that there's no public land left between the subdivisions, even if they're far apart.

This government taking is actually a transfer to a private party that's overseen by government authorities, with whom larger landowners have more clout.

I've seen this very thing happen. When your favorite woods got a fence across it even when the nearest house isn't in sight, there was a good chance it was because of this reverse homesteading.

The additional land is really of no use to financially secure homeowners. It's suburbia, not farms. This practice really takes land from the public who could benefit from it for recreation and short-range transportation. In some cases, this practice is illegal on the grounds that the territory includes a body of water, for many states have laws making water public property.

It's neat what you learn when you look at the laws, public records, maps, and local histories, isn't it? Sometimes you just have to remember what it was like before this land rush. (I'm old, so at least I have that luxury.) I'm guessing this unconventional taking really took off in the '90s when Far Right ideologues like Phil Gramm were spouting off about how they didn't believe in public property, but I think the process took years.

I've had personal property ruined by abuses of this system. If someone puts up a fence on what's actually public land and I end up dropping a map in a creek trying to get around it, I'm not going to be too pleased.

The suburban land run is like the efforts of wealthy landowners on Lake Huron to stop people from "trespassing" on "their" beach even though the law clearly states the beach is public. Hardly any difference at all.