Giving, Taking, and the Common Good

Lois Jemtegard wanted to sell a portion of her land along the breathtaking Columbia River Gorge, a national scenic area. Interested buyers wanted to build a house on the property. A governmental commission put a stop to their plans, claiming that building a house along the gorge would destroy a stunning view, a piece of nature's unique artistry.

The current debate on "takings" legislation centers on many such conflicts, and the stakes on both sides are often quite high: individual rights vs. the common good, or individual profit vs. environmental protection. A pivotal point of discussion is often the question of who should be compensated for what.

"Takings" is code language for governmental regulations or restrictions-especially those driven by environmental concerns, such as protection of a species or habitat-that "impose upon" private property values. Should the government compensate a landowner for restricting the use or value of private land? Answering that question gets into serious issues regarding the intersection of private property, caring for the environment, and acting for the common good.

Those behind the nation's current anti-government wave often cloak takings rhetoric in images of small-scale property owners denied use of their land. But a clue as to whose interests are really served by such policies is found by looking at who puts up the big money to support takings legislation: the timber industry, oil and mining companies, and other multinationals.

A concrete example is Washington state's Initiative 164, passed last spring by the state legislature. Before the initiative could go into effect, opponents gathered 231,000 signatures to place it on November's ballot. If approved by voters, I-164 would place on taxpayers the burden of compensating private property owners. In many cases, taxpayers' dollars would be used to pay private property owners to stop polluting or destroying habitats-in other words, people would be paid to follow the law.

WHEN PEOPLE OR corporations pollute water on their own property, in essence they are polluting the water of the other property owners around them and that of the general public. Who will compensate the community for this damage, or see to it that it stops? The Washington initiative would place that burden on the victims of such pollution, who would be required to file a complaint, bring proof that damage has been done, and then wait 30 days while the "economic impact" of their complaint is analyzed. In the meantime, the polluting action can continue unchecked.

Advocates of "takings" compensation rarely address the flip side of the question: What happens in cases where the expenditure of public money results in profits for private property owners? For instance, taxpayers' dollars are often used to fund the construction of roads that give logging companies access to previously unreachable land. The public is not given a share of the profits gained by the logging companies. To be consistent, shouldn't there be a responsibility on the part of the private property owner to share the profits or to compensate the community? You won't hear that argument from the takings crowd.

The way the power struggle among environmental groups, big business, and government in this country has been waged has created a hostile climate for dialogue. Among this babble, a sense of the common good is often lost.

When self-interest and profit take precedence over the common good, community is diminished. As part of a larger community of nature's wonder, we must often look beyond our own backyards and our own self-interests to act on behalf of the greater good, for the sake of those around us and for future generations. In seeking to protect spectacular places like the Columbia Gorge, we may just rediscover the real meaning of community.

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"Giving, Taking, and the Common Good"
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