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Conservation or confiscation?

By Alan Caruba
web posted April 26, 2004

In April, the New Jersey Builders Association finally managed to muster an attack on legislation whose purpose it is said is to "conserve" a wide swath of northern New Jersey called the Highlands.

In Congress, there's also a Highlands Conservation Act (H.R. 1964 & S.999) that would give more than a $100 million to the governors of Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey for the same purpose. States are invited to identify land in the two million acre Highlands region that would be put under the control of government, thus effectively destroying the rights of private property owners in those States. This naked land grab hides behind claims of preserving clean drinking water, wildlife habitat, and endangered species.

There is a parallel piece of legislation in Congress designed to conserve and "protect" what are called "National Heritage Areas." It would give the federal government, in cooperation with various environmental groups, power over privately owned lands by designating vaguely defined National Heritage Areas (NHA's). Though the NPS denies it would affect the rights of the private property owners, at any time in the future they could find themselves subject to intense pressure to sell.

The New Jersey Highlands plan would create a "regional council" with veto power over large-scale development in about half the region that stretches across seven northwestern counties and contains the water supply for half the State's residents. What no one will admit, however, is that the regional council will be composed of handpicked tree-huggers.

"From Day 1, this administration has had a policy of no growth, anti-housing and regulations intended to deny modest and middle-income families a place to live," said Patrick O'Keefe, the builder's chief executive office. This legislation will be the scene of a now-classic battle between environmentalists and many, if not, all of the mayors and other elected offices across the region. The latter will argue that, without development, their local economies will be affected; driving up their need to impose higher property taxes, and the former will say that the water supply must be protected.

O'Keefe answers the Greens, saying that water argument is specious because new environmental regulations already protect the water supply. Anyone who has ever tried to buy or sell a home in New Jersey knows that environmental regulations and concerns play a large role in that transaction.

In mid-April, alerted to the danger, more than six hundred people from Morris County, New Jersey, showed up at legislative hearing, some wearing t-shirts saying, "Don't Steal My Land" and "Where Will the Families Live?" This is at the heart of what is happening. John Barba, president of the New Jersey Builders Association said, "There are 100,000 young adults living in the Highlands, the grown children of Highlands families. Where will they work and live? They'll have two choices, live in their parent's homes or leave the area."

McGreevey (extreme right) met with environmentalists and spoke about the Highlands water on April 21McGreevey (extreme right) met with environmentalists and spoke about the Highlands water on April 21

Governor James E. McGreevey, a Democrat, is already one of the least popular governors ever elected with the exception of James Florio, also a Democrat, who was voted out of office after one term for imposing a huge tax increase on everyone and embracing every environmental restriction imaginable.

At the federal level, the National Park Service, already acknowledged as doing a poor job managing vast tracks of federal land, is advocating the passage of the National Heritage Act that would partner the NPS with state and local entities. Already twenty-four NHA's encompassing 160,000 square miles of mostly privately owned lands have been created since 1984.

As Cheryl Chumley of the American Policy Center, an activist think tank, points out, the entire State of Tennessee has been designated a NHA. "Since November 12, 1996, taxpayers from every other State help preserve the ‘national significance' of Tennessee to the tune of $10 million, spread over a 13-year period." It's that term, "national significance" on which the entire NHA scheme hangs and it literally means anything anyone at the NPS or any environmentalist wants it to mean.

As the General Accounting Office warns, "No systematic process is in place to identify qualified candidate sites and designate them as National Heritage Areas." So, for the sake of argument, let's say your home or farm is in one. Will the US Constitution's Fifth Amendment actually protect you when someone from the government or a private environmental group shows up and tells you that they want to buy it in order to provide "a viewshed", i.e., a nice view from the highway minus your home and everybody else's?

The so-called private property owner's protections in the proposed NHA legislation may look good on paper, but there is no provision for even telling people a NHA is proposed where they live. As Chumley notes, "The Founders did not intend that property rights be traded among special interest and government groups at whim, but are rather to be protected by the Constitution against the grasp of radical Greens and pandering politicians."

That is the problem with the NHAs and with the proposed regional council in New Jersey which would, for all practical purposes, control the fate of all existing privately owned property in the Highlands area and insure that no new homes, apartment complexes, or business enterprises be built.

The Fifth Amendment says "nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation." By designating large tracts of land as "protected" for whatever reason, the rights of the private property owners and the value of their land falls into the hands of people who want to return their property to a state of wilderness to be enjoyed by wild life.

The Highlands Conservation Act and the National Heritage Areas Act are nothing more than government confiscation in the name of so-called conservation. The Federal government owns more than forty percent of the landmass of the nation. States also own large portions. The population, however, is growing and they have to live somewhere. If it were up to the Greens, everyone would be squeezed into cities. They hate suburbs because they hate cars, but mostly they hate private property.

All this is going on in various guises at the federal to the state level, cooperating with land hungry environmental organizations, many of which have millions of dollars at their disposal. Should the government match their funds with public dollars? No. Should regional councils or National Heritage Areas determine the use of private property? No. Should government be able to abrogate the rights of private property owners? No. Should you be paying more attention to what's going on? Yes.

Alan Caruba writes "Warning Signs", a weekly commentary posted on the website of The National Anxiety Center. © Alan Caruba 2004

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