Congress Should Guard Property Rights

IF the government wants to put a highway in your backyard, the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution requires fair compensation. If the government decides to use your property to preserve an endangered species, it also should have to pay for the property.

In both these cases, the private-property owner is being asked to sacrifice his land for the public good. It's only fair that the public share the costs and not force the unfortunate landowner to shoulder the entire burden.

Unfortunately, both cases are not treated the same. While individuals whose property is condemned for highway construction are compensated for their loss, private-property owners who are unable to use part of their property because of regulations designed to preserve an endangered species or protect a wetland are denied fair payment.

Across this nation, small business owners, family farmers, and small landowners are forced to suffer uncompensated ``takings'' of their private property by government regulations. Tired of condemnation without compensation, these citizens are joining the property-rights movement.

Although the property-rights movement may seem to be a recent phenomenon, protection of private property is as old as the Constitution. Two hundred years ago the Founders of our country included in the Bill of Rights a guarantee of the right to private property. The Fifth Amendment provides that private property shall not ``be taken for public use without just compensation.''

The purpose of the Fifth Amendment is simple: The public - not an individual - should pay for the cost of public benefits. A highway, a wetland, and a wildlife reserve each benefit the public.

Making the federal government pay for the cost of public benefits also forces the government to weigh the costs and benefits of particular laws and regulations.

Despite the Constitution's requirement that the federal government not deprive anyone of their property ``without just compensation,'' federal regulators issue countless environmental and other rules that render valuable property nearly worthless.

Retirees have lost their life savings, and others have actually gone to jail, because they filled in mudholes that some regulator decided was a ``wetland.'' Homeowners have been prevented from using their property productively because a plant, bug, or rodent sometimes lives there.

The 104th Congress will have several opportunities to prevent these abuses and protect the constitutional rights of all Americans. All we need to do is to affirm that the Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution means what it says.

Sound revolutionary? It did to the Founders, too. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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