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The War on Private Property: from Manhattan Beach to Manhattan

Nov 01, 2018 | by William Perry Pendley

Last month in Latham, New York, just outside of the state capitol of Albany, a hearty band of property rights warriors gathered for the indefatigable Carol W. LaGrasse’s Twenty-Second Annual National Conference on Private Property Rights to hear from what she called “leaders and experts from New York and across the country.” It was an eye-opener for anyone who believes property owners are under siege only in California, the Mountain West, the big city, or rural America. Nope. Enemies of private property, it seems, are pervasive. 

James S. Burling, Esq., Vice President for Litigation of Pacific Legal Foundation, which set early national precedents for property owners at the Supreme Court of the United States against the notorious California Coastal Commission, discussed scores of unconstitutional land grabs in the Golden State and elsewhere but gave a path forward given the confirmation of Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. 

Wyoming trial lawyer and 2018 Republican primary gubernatorial candidate Harriet M. Hageman, Esq., who grew up on a ranch and tilts swords with the alphabet soup of federal agencies that make the rural West a virtual colony, related battles with the Fish & Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Forest Service among others. It is not just the threat that governments will seize property or regulate it into uselessness, she added; it is the financial burden of federal regulations—$2.1 trillion per year or $14,000 per household. Of course, Congress is to blame. 

Speaking of Congress, attorney Meghan Largent explored the federal Rails-to-Trails Act, which empowered the federal government to impose itself between abandoning railroad lines and the contract into which they entered with private landowners with a case study, not 

of some middle-of-nowhere property owners forced to endure strangers on land that was to revert to them, but of one in the heart of Manhattan. The High Line is a 1.45-mile-long New York Central Railroad spur on New York City’s west side, which authorities decided would be a great "living system" featuring landscape architecture, urban design, and ecology. So, with federal authorities, they seized it. Despite Ms. Largent’s efforts and court rulings that conflict with decades of constitutional law, the Supreme Court of the United States twice declined to reverse the injustice. The High Line is a successful urban park, but as Justice Holmes warned, “a strong public desire to improve the public condition is not enough to warrant achieving the desire by a shorter cut than the constitutional way of paying for the change.” 

It is not only Congress, but also covetous state and local officials, lawyers, and bureaucrats, as Irene Prestigiacomo of Willets Point in Queens County, New York proved in an emotional presentation. Once a thriving and bustling enclave of small businesses, it now appears to passersby—from the tall chain link fences, abandoned buildings, and razed landscapes—to be an uninhabited no-man’s land. Not so! Ms. Prestigiacomo’s eight tenants operate businesses there, she pays staggeringly high property taxes, and they struggle to get to work down streets on which no maintenance is performed and that continue to decay, while circumventing the road closures dooming more land to urban wilderness. Meanwhile, New York City imposes land use limitations preventing existing landowners from using their property while permitting wealthy, government-subsidized newcomers to maximize their land’s value. Finally, authorities impose “E-designations” on private land, allegedly because of environmental hazards, but without performing tests on those lands. 

All of this began in 2008, with former Mayor Bloomberg’s urban renewal plan for the 62-acres, notwithstanding that people and businesses are there. Locals have taken the plan to court, where they have won, and have launched a successful public awareness campaign. They hope, if not wiser heads, then at least the Constitution will prevail. 

At the end of a long day learning of such outrages from coast to coast, that has to be our hope. Our political leaders appear incapable of protecting us.

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