Green greed in the open spaces movement

Christian Hartsock Filmmaker, Journalist
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Between overtures to the “ninety-nine percent,” elements of the limousine left have long managed to maintain their opulent one-percent lifestyle under the veil of green advocacy — usually at the expense of private property rights, and oftentimes, the less-privileged objects of their populist affections as well.

Terms like “open spaces” and “conservation easing” are what certain circles of progressive elites use to safeguard their progressive reputations while preserving their status as elite.

This past week, City Council members of the southern California town of Escondido unanimously voted to “conserve” former golf course property belonging to developer Michael Schlesinger as an “open space.” Schlesinger, unable to afford the annual $1 million in operational fees to sustain the golf course given its mere 125 members, decided to discontinue the business and instead use the land to develop 283 new homes.

This decision was blocked by the Council, who took it upon themselves to decide what the best purpose was for Schlesinger’s privately owned land. Though the Council’s move satisfied local residents who fancy the exclusive nature of their previously golf club-adjacent community, Schlesinger, being the rightful proprietor of the land, filed suit, finding the designation of his own land as an “open space” to be of no incidental use to him.

The Council-approved measure was titled, ironically, the “Citizens Property Rights Initiative.” San Diego Union-Tribune reporter Kirk Effinger noted the head-scratcher of a name: “Then there’s the measure’s title – ‘Citizens Property Rights Initiative.’ If I understand the premise correctly, they want the citizens of Escondido to affirm their property rights by taking away the property rights of someone else. Perfect.”

Lest there be any mistake, the Escondido Country Club & Community Homeowners Organization (ECCHO) explains that their mission is to “preserve the existing green belt” at the expense of private property is rights, because it is the “individual ‘good’ neighbor’s property rights” that “should be protected,” and “wealthy, out-of-town speculator” Schlesinger, you see, is a “’bad’ neighbor” whose rights are “not guaranteed or exclusive” (emphases mine).

ECCHO’s bizarrely illustrated standard of whose property rights are more equal than whose was apparently enough to convince a city government that it held the power to play favorites between the “good neighbors” and the “bad neighbors” and thus, whose basic rights ought to “guaranteed.”

While this game is mostly played on local turf, its players often descend from high places, with federal taxpayer funds to throw into the fight. In 2001, Senators Ted Kennedy and John Kerry pushed a land deal in Harvard, Massachusetts, setting aside $3 million of earmarked taxpayer money to buy “open space” in a plan that raised significant taxes on new homebuyers.

Tom Cotton (not the Arkansas congressman of the same name), a long-time member of the Watt Farm Committee and trustee of the Harvard Conservation Trust, helped steer a “permanent protection” of Watt Farm in Harvard as an annex of the Oxbow National Wildlife Refuge, raising $2.2 million from the Trust for Public Land to purchase 112 acres of the Cape Cod property.

As Cotton solicited funds from Harvard, Kerry and Kennedy led a delegation to acquire an additional $3 million in federal earmarks needed for the purchase. A perhaps overly excited Kerry crowed: “Much has been written about the ‘greatest generation’ that won World War II, but recently I’ve been asking people to think about what they’re going to say about this generation. That legacy will be defined by actions such as the preservation of open space.”

This sort of high-minded activism can have devastating effects on housing markets. In tandem with the efforts of Kennedy and the Cotton Club, the Massachusetts House of Representatives pushed a bill to finance the Cape land bank with transfer taxes passed on exclusively to prospective homebuyers and sellers.

In what the Boston Globe defended as a “fair and comparatively modest assessment,” a one percent “fee” was levied on real estate transactions with the first $100,000 exempt. That means the surcharge on a $500,000 transaction would be $4,000. This format was a counter-alternative to Gov. Paul Cellucci’s solution of using $30 million from the Massachusetts open space fund to purchase the land.

Though he would boast of his “ongoing effort to protect open spaces … and preserve the environment” as “a major success,” Kennedy apparently discounted how its implications risked derailing a vulnerable housing market. (Not unlike derailing an Oldsmobile into a tidal channel.)

“I’m not sure of [the Globe’s] definition of modest,” decried President Jerome Rappaport, Jr. of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, “[B]ut to me, a $4,000 tax placed on me, the home buyer, is not modest, especially if I’m the only one being asked to fund a program that will benefit everyone who is already in the community I’m seeking to enter.”

Calling it a “discriminatory, elitist approach” by land bank proponents “to tax others for a program they want,” Association of Realtors President Richard Dils added, “While the wealthy might agree … that an additional $4,000 sales tax on a $500,000 home at closing time might not seem like much, a 1 or 2 percent tax imposed on young low- and middle-income buyers or on elderly, fixed-income sellers could severely limit their ability to enter the housing market.”

As economist Thomas Sowell wrote of the “disparate impact” of similar government-mandated “open spaces” on housing prices in post-1970s Northern California: “Behind
much of the lofty and pretty talk are some ugly and selfish realities. People who already own their homes in an upscale community pay no price for making it hard for others to move into their community. On the contrary, the value of the homes they already own shoots up when they restrict the supply of new homes…In other words, they can keep out the less affluent people — or, as they put it, ‘preserve the character of the community’ — while benefiting themselves economically in the name of green idealism.”

These local cases of private property rights being quietly stampeded in the name of “green preservation” may seem to have limited consequences, combined they pose great risks to rights all Americans deserve to have protected, and the precedent they set is troubling.