Thursday, August 11, 2011

Public Parks and Private Property

In the semi-wilds of northern Maine, a land management controversy is highlighting some interesting tensions in conservative conceptions of property rights.

Roxanne Quimby, a well-heeled philanthropist with substantial landholdings in northern Maine, recenty announced her interest in donating a new national park.  The park would contain 70,000 acres of land adjacent to Baxter State Park, the crown jewel of the Maine state parks system and the northern terminus of the Appalachian trail.  Ms. Quimby also plans to donate and raise money for a management endowment, and to donate an additional area to the state.

The reaction of locals have been mixed, and Maine's Senators have already voiced their opposition to the proposal.  They have raised several arguments (summarized in more detail here): that the deal would remove land from state tax rolls; that it "would cause a region of the state to be governed by decisions dictated from Washington," (Senator Snowe, quoted in the Bangor Daily News); and that it "would most likely spell the end to the working forest that has provided thousands of good jobs to the area’s families for generations" (Senator Collins, also in today's Bangor Daily News story).

The latter two arguments echo the sorts of claims often made when the federal government proposes some sort of land preservation, but here there's an interesting twist: Ms. Quimby owns all of the land.  It's all private property.  So the Senators and the local opponents in effect are saying that anti-federal preferences and public economic interests ought to trump the ability of a private landowner to do as she pleases with her land.  That is an interesting thing for conservatives to say.

There are intriguing parallels between the conception of property rights contained in these statements and some of the views of legal academics traditionally associated with more environmentalist views of property.  Eric Freyfogle, for example, has written several works (examples here and here) arguing that property rights and values necessarily flow from and are embedded in communities, and that some community right of access and governance should therefore be--and traditionally has been--a key part of property law.  In this instance, at least, Collins and Snowe seem to have wholeheartedly adopted Freyfogle's view, but in opposition to, not support of, environmental preservation.

- Dave Owen

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I wonder if it would be possible for the donor to agree to pay a low tax rate rather than creating the maintenance fund and if that would appease those whose oppose the donation? I think one would have to know the dollar figures involved for maintenance of the park to make an informed decision. Will $21 million be enough to sustain the park indefinitely? As all this is going on, California has 70 or so state parks scheduled for closure due to budget shortfalls. As a taxpayer, I would want to know I won't eventually get stuck with the bill, allowing a very wealthy person make the average Joe shoulder their tax burden.

Posted by: Dana Atman, Esq. | Aug 17, 2011 10:56:38 AM

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