Americans place a high value on property rights. We consider the right to own, buy, sell, and control land to be an indispensable ingredient for personal freedom. At the same time, we have at times found that our neighbors have used their property in ways we find offensive, so we have relinquished some rights and given our government the right to control in large part the way land can be developed and used. Often the allowable use for a piece of land depends on the unique capabilities of that land.
1. Food as a National Priority. Americans want food supplies to be stable, wholesome, and inexpensive. Filling this order poses serious challenges. These challenges can be understood in light of a few important facts:
farmable acres are declining yield growth per acre is no longer increases annually as it once did population is increasing the world's standard of living is increasing creating a demand for more food, especially meat
The demand for more meat is particularly onerous because many pounds of grain or hay are consumed to produce a pound of meat. One might well ask, where will future food increases come from? Experts generally agree that more food could be derived from the deserts and tropics. However, the deserts are deserts because they lack water. Water to irrigate deserts is becoming more scarce. Farming the tropics is problematic because of low soil fertility, tremendous pest pressure, and unstable politics. Most of our efforts to date have centered on increasing yields from land that is presently farmed. This can include "ordinary" farmland, prime farmland, or unique farmland.
2. Non-agricultural Land Use. Each soil is uniquely suitable for use. In the Soil Survey program of the NRCS, each soil is evaluated for a multitude of possible uses. These uses are listed below:
crops rangeland/timber wildlife habitat recreational development, including camp sites picnic areas playgrounds paths and trails golf courses building site development, including shallow excavations dwellings (basements) small commercial buildings streets lawns and landscaping sanitary facilities, including septic tank fields sewage lagoons landfill sites landfill cover construction materials, including roadfill sand gravel topsoil water management, including pond reservoirs embankments, dikes, levees drainage irrigation terraces grassed waterways
3. Controlling Land Use. The Homestead Act of 1862 provided for the allocation of 160 acres to a settler if he remained on the land for 5 years. Perhaps this was one of our earliest attempts at social engineering, encouraging citizens to change their residence and life style. Similar acts followed. The Zoning Act of 1926 allowed government control of property. The Supreme Court ruled that such urban control was justified under the maxim, "Use your own property in such a manner as not to injure another." Although not the original intent, some states zone rural land too.
In addition to zoning laws, governments use various other tools to control land use. One such tool is differential taxation. This concept is based on the idea that property taxes should be based on current use of the land, not its highest use or market value. This system discourages development and tends to keep land in agriculture. Laws based on this idea are sometimes called "greenbelt" laws. This is the most commonly used technique to preserve farmland.
Another way to control land use is through easements. With an easement one purchases the right to a specific land use, but ownership of land is not transferred.
In 1926 another landmark change was enacted--the Eminent Domain law. This law allowed for forced sales of property against the will of the property owner. The doctrine behind this law is that the general welfare prevails over private good. When this law is exercised, the landowner receives market value for his or her property.
Public purchase and private purchases also allow control of land use. Public purchases can be voluntary or involuntary. Basically, the government purchases land to insure a specific use. Private purchases of land are done by concerned citizens or organizations to protect land or preserve a particular organism or feature. The Nature Conservancy is an example of an organization that purchases land to preserve it.
Students are encouraged to look up the following vocabulary words in the textbook glossary or elsewhere and to browse the following web sites.
Home page of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of
the United Nations.
A useful discussion of greenbelt laws in Florida.
Home page for the Nature Conservancy.
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