News: CJ Exclusives

Growing Threat to Property Rights

Smart Growth policies affect landowners in South Carolina, other jurisdictions

Kay McClanahan wishes she could scan the horizon around her South Carolina farm and blissfully enjoy the green pastures and beautiful horses frolicking in the golden sunshine. Now, she says, her farmland is surrounded by storm clouds generated by “smart growth” advocates and government bureaucrats.

Under the guise of preserving open space, the Richland County Council’s 2020 Town and Country Comprehensive Land Use Vision Plan uses rural down-zoning to deny infrastructure to the 330-square-mile area outside the new urban growth boundary. It also imposes large-lot zoning, buffer zones around water, and other restrictive rules on the area now called the Congaree Preserve.

McClanahan and others who live in the area, many of them senior citizens, fear the land their families have owned for generations will be rendered worthless to buyers or legally manipulated away from them altogether. For many the property is their only significant asset and is used as collateral for loans. Some give parcels to their children. Others sell a few acres at a time to developers.

“Preservation zoning of our land will mean that either the property can’t be subdivided at all or will mandate that the lots be so large that the average rural property owner won’t even have enough land to divide among his children, so that a judge has to order that it be sold in order to probate his estate,” she said.

The council’s action has permanently altered McClanahan’s life. Before the upheaval, she and her husband, Bill, planned to retire to their horse farm outside Columbia. Their dream of peaceful days at Homestead Farms was shattered when they learned their property rights had been quietly but severely diminished.

Rather than give up, the McClanahans got angry and vocal. In 2000, Kay retired from a distinguished career in the criminal justice system, where she was twice named South Carolina Law Enforcement officer of the year. She and Bill now spend their time fighting the final implementation of the zoning code that will affect the area she describes as the largest landmass on the East Coast that is still primarily owned by African-Americans.

Segregation by economic status

McClanahan doesn’t think that statistic is coincidental to the council’s activities. She makes the serious charge that the plan was intentionally written to restrict minority growth in the area, where many minorities are “land-rich and money-poor.” She denounced the county’s plan to create seven densely populated villages throughout the green space and said the plan will create segregation by economic status.

Based on the county’s map, she concludes the remotely located communities featuring high-density housing will become “a place for the poor and the displaced not-so-poor to be hidden away after their land is taken from them.”

She’s not alone in her concern. Last November, The Wall Street Journal published an editorial that criticized the Richland County plan, noting that many of the affected families have owned the land since the end of the Civil War. “They’ve had to fight for it through Jim Crow, segregation and now, apparently through smart growth,” the editorial said.

It is ironic to McClanahan that Richland County landowners, people she believes have been good stewards of the land, are now targets of those who call themselves preservation advocates. She advises property owners to be wary of appeals for preservation areas, open space, buffer zones and the like, and to closely monitor local government activities for regulations that can be passed with little fanfare but which have devastating, permanent implications for property rights.

“At home, radical environmentalists and government are joining forces to use smart growth to take property away from rural landowners, without conscience or compensation. And we are not alone,” she said.

Just ask residents of Portland, Ore. The area has been notorious for its land use restrictions since implementing an urban growth boundary in 1979 as part of its far-reaching attempt to create a utopian society in which people live, work, and recreate in tightly compacted areas. Randal O’Toole, director of The American Dream Coalition and the Oregon-based Thoreau Institute, told the audience that Portland’s massive rezoning actions, called “densification” by planners, have imposed serious limitations on personal freedom and property rights.

Since population continues to grow and planners have resisted all but minor expansion of the boundary, the 24 cities and three counties in the area rezoned to limit the types and size of homes that can be constructed. For example, if a home burns down, an apartment or row house that meets new, higher density requirements must be built in its place. Multistory apartment buildings are constructed in single-family neighborhoods.

“They wanted to see four or five-story apartment buildings, so we’re seeing these big behemoths mushrooming up all over the Portland area,” he said.

If a single-family house is planned, it must go up on a very small lot. While the average lot size was 9,000 square feet in 1990, planners are trying to decrease the average to 6,000 square feet. That goal has led to the creation of the “skinny house,” a home that’s 15 feet wide and increasingly is being wedged into neighborhoods all over Portland. It’s not uncommon, O’Toole said, for a developer to buy a house on a 100-by-100-foot lot, tear it down, and rebuild four skinny houses in its place.

Many of the high-density developments are taxpayer-subsidized through grants, tax breaks, or fee waivers, he said. Then, residents aren’t pleased with the results. The multiple-level apartments and skinny houses have some of the highest vacancy rates in the city.

The argument used by Portland’s smart-growth advocates to justify the growth boundary is that U.S. farmland is in short supply and therefore needs protection. That is absurd, said conference panelist John Charles of the Cascade Policy Institute. Prescriptive zoning is really about power and control. Instead, he advocates performance-based zoning that acknowledges the free market’s ability to determine where things should go, and at what density and lot size.

Private-sector zoning imposed by communities through deed restrictions and covenants is also preferable to sweeping growth boundaries because it affects only the people who opt in. “While there are horror stories with community associations, and it’s not a perfect world, it’s a very market-based approach,” he said.

There is a glimmer of hope in turning the tide against coercive smart-growth policies like the rural down-zoning occurring in South Carolina and Portland, which Charles described as reflecting an antihumanity view of the world in an attempt to cram people into dense cities.

“The backlash against this elitism is beginning to be seen in the political arena,” he said, describing developments in Loudoun County, Virginia, the second-fastest growing county in the country and an area with restrictive zoning ordinances.

Most of the county’s smart-growth advocates who were voted into office in 1999 were recently defeated at the ballot box.

Martinez is an associate editor at Carolina Journal.