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When “Smart Growth” and “Sustainable Development” washed across the nation in the 1990s, property-rights activists were overwhelmed. Visioning councils sprang up everywhere, and towns, cities, counties and regions soon had “Vision 2020 Action Plans” that transformed normal communities into “Sustainable Communities,” and, for the most part, landowners never knew what hit them.
A common element in this transformation is the creation of what is usually called a “Comprehensive Land Use Plan.” This plan, when approved by the governing authority, becomes the basis for bureaucrats to virtually control the use of private property.
The definition of property ownership includes the notion that the owner has control of the property and may use the property as the owner sees fit, subject to damages only if his use of his own property causes damage to a neighbor, provable in court. Armed with comprehensive plans, however, bureaucrats control the use of private property. Bureaucrats, not the property owner, decide whether the owner may use his property as he wishes – or not.
When Houston County, Minn., adopted its comprehensive plan, bureaucrats became little gods, telling landowners what they could and could not do with their own land. Often, the bureaucrat’s decision made no sense at all, but could not be challenged. When the land-control god spoke, fuggedaboutit!
Houston County landowner Jim Shimshak owned a 200-acre farm. He wanted to give each of his five sons a home site on the property. The land-use-control god said no. The comprehensive plan requires no more than one structure per 40 acres. Who is exercising the power of ownership here: the land-use-control god bureaucrat, or the owner whose taxes help to pay the salary of the bureaucrat? Does this situation stink, or what?
Houston County landowner Mel Davy wanted to replace his older mobile home with a new one, on the same site where a well and septic connection already existed. Sound reasonable? The land-use-control god said no. Davy was required to put his new mobile home across the road, in a cornfield, and build a new driveway, dig a new well, install a new septic system and install new electricity access.
Houston County landowner Mark Rask wanted to tear down an old farmhouse on his property and build a new one. The land-use-control god said no, because there was another dwelling already on the property. Rask could, however, restore the old farmhouse by bringing it into compliance with current building codes.
Houston County landowner Milton Burroughs wanted to build a new home and sell his old home. He wanted to build the new home close enough to the existing home to share the same well. You guessed it. The land-use god said no. Burroughs had to choose between moving his new home out into a farm field and digging a new well, or tearing down the old home he really needed to sell.
For more than 10 years, Houston County residents have bowed before the land-use gods. Then they decided to fight “city hall.”
They created an organization of local landowners which they called “Landowners Concerned About Property Rights.” They began to document instances where the land-use god exercised authority the landowners believed to be well beyond the authority of the county’s comprehensive plan, and certainly beyond the authority of the Minnesota or U.S. Constitution.
Then the group circulated a petition that said something to the effect that private-property rights should be given high priority in the development and execution of the county’s land-use plan. The petition gained more than 700 signatures in this county of only 20,000 residents.
Then the group contacted the Budd-Falen law firm in Cheyenne, Wyo.
On April 7, the county officials were notified of the group’s intent to sue and offered a waiver from the suit if the county commissioners would sign the petition and work with a small committee from the landowners’ organization to modify the most obnoxious provisions of the comprehensive plan.
Apparently, the high and mighty land-use gods of Houston County feel no need to recognize nor communicate with mere landowners, taxpayers and voters. No official even acknowledged the letter of intent to sue.
The landowners group has now filed suit with the Third Judicial District. If the arrogant masters of land-use control in Houston County ignore this document, they will lose by default. They can’t let that happen, so some kind of response will be forthcoming.
The suit charges the county with exercising authority not granted by the Minnesota Constitution or the U.S. Constitution, with applying the county’s comprehensive plan differently in similar situations and with exercising power well beyond the authority granted by state or federal law.
Property-rights organizations across the nation are waiting to see how Houston County responds, and, perhaps more importantly, how the court will interpret the laws and precedents in the many specific examples detailed in the lawsuit.
Landowners Concerned About Property Rights in Houston County, Minn., has become an example other property-rights groups are following. Finally, someone is leading the way to an effective answer to the arrogance of government-imposed land-use planning.