Tuesday, May 31, 2011
As May draws to a close, I’d like to thank the Land Use Prof Blog editors for what has been an enjoyable month of guest-blogging. This month has been a devastating one for Missouri. My first blog post of the month discussed legal issues surrounding the flooding of hundreds of square miles in Southeast Missouri, and this post examines land use questions facing Joplin, Missouri, in the wake of a tornado that ravaged much of that town on May 22.
Last Saturday, I went to Joplin to assist in a massive clean-up operation that is now underway. Despite watching plenty of television footage earlier in the week, I was startled at the degree of destruction. In the city’s most severely damaged neighborhoods, entire city blocks had been reduced to mere piles of debris. Without fences or buildings to segregate their respective rights, effected landowners were ignoring property boundary lines and working together in a desperate effort to recreate some semblance of order.
As we gathered rubble and piled it along roadsides and alleyways, it occurred to me that the tornado had temporarily suspended most property and land use laws in the area. Laws of trespass, nuisance, and encroachment had been set aside. Land that deeds, easements, covenants, and zoning restrictions had once sculpted into orderly middle-class neighborhoods had briefly reverted to a sort of regulated commons.
Of course, property rights enforcement will soon re-emerge in Joplin’s tornado-stricken areas for the same sorts of reasons as those famously described by Harold Demsetz in his article, Toward a Theory of Property Rights. As order gradually returns to Joplin, the city will need a strategy for rebuilding. Hopefully, Joplin’s civic leaders will learn from the experiences of other tornado-ravaged towns. An article published in the Kansas City Star last week discusses what Joplin might glean from Greensburg, Kansas—a town that has redefined itself as a cutting-edge “green” community after encountering its own tornado. A different article published in today’s Charlotte Observer describes the successes and failures of Wheatland, Pennsylvania, and Xenia, Ohio, in land use policymaking as those cities recovered from major tornado damage in years past. According to the article, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, has already appointed a 50-person task force to generate a recovery plan following that city’s April 27 tornado. Land use planning should play an important role as both Tuscaloosa and Joplin rebuild in the years ahead.