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Western Voters Consider Property Rights Changes

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Voters in five western states are considering initiatives this November that supporters claim will strengthen individual property rights. Libertarians and small government groups have spent millions of dollars to get those initiatives on the ballots. They say governments have too much control over private property. They face opposition from people who contend the real goal is to make it almost impossible for local governments to pass new environmental and zoning rules.

Here's NPR's Jeff Brady with the second of two reports.

JEFF BRADY: Momentum for the initiatives started with a Supreme Court ruling last year on eminent domain. The Kelo decision said local governments have the right to condemn a person's property and then transfer it to someone else for economic development.

John Tillman is with Americans for Limited Government.

Mr. JOHN TILLMAN (President, Americans for Limited Government): What the Kelo decision showed us is that our property rights protections, that are supposedly enshrined in the Constitution, are on very shaky ground.

BRADY: Tillman's group, along with several others, is largely responsible for the initiatives showing up on ballots in California, Washington, Idaho and Arizona. All but the Washington initiative addressed the Kelo issue, but most also include another provision that would have a much wider reach. It says that if a government passes a regulation that reduces the value of someone's property, that person can file a monetary claim against the government.

Local officials say that if the initiatives pass they'll be reluctant to approve any new regulations, fearing big money claims they can't afford to pay. That would be just fine with Laird Maxwell; he sponsored the Idaho initiative.

Mr. LAIRD MAXWELL (Chairman, Idahoans for Tax Reform): They hurt people. Government planners hurt people because they think they are so all knowing they try to plan for the future for things that haven't even been invented yet.

BRADY: Instead of land use planning and zoning, which he considers pure socialism, Maxwell imagines a world where market forces are all that guide development. He admits that would be messy. But he says in the end it would better serve the common good by creating a society based on what the individual wants. He states the purpose of the initiative in the West very simply.

Mr. MAXWELL: It's the restoration of our traditional property rights.

Professor CAROL ROSE (Professor of law, Yale University): That's really just empty rhetoric.

BRADY: Carol Rose is Professor emerita at Yale Law School. She specializes in property law and calls the initiatives a sneak attack on land use planning. She says in the U.S., people have never been able to do whatever they want with their property.

Prof. ROSE: Property ownership has always involved responsibilities as well as entitlements. So that, yes, indeed you are able to do certain things with your property as you wish and other people can't tell you what to do and what not to do. But you have to do that taking into account the needs of the larger community and the needs of your neighbors.

BRADY: As the world has changed, Rose says governments have drawn up new regulations to address problems. For example, the development of skyscrapers in cities prompted zoning and height limits. In suburban areas, regulations kept smelly hog farms away from subdivisions.

In the West, half the land is owned by the federal government. Backers of these initiatives have tapped into a long-simmering resentment when it comes to government regulation of land. But the funding and much of the guidance for the campaigns comes from far outside the region.

Americans for Limited Government keeps the names of donors secret, but the group's chairman, New York real estate developer Howard Rich, has long been a supporter of efforts to reduce the size of government. Backers of initiatives in the West say the hope is that if they're successful this November, the proposals will spread to other states.

Jeff Brady, NPR News.

INSKEEP: To catch up on those ballot initiatives and hear part one of our story, just go to npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jeff Brady is a National Desk Correspondent based in Philadelphia, where he covers energy issues and climate change. Brady helped establish NPR's environment and energy collaborative which brings together NPR and Member station reporters from across the country to cover the big stories involving the natural world.