Oregon's Property-Rights Revolt

Three decades ago, Oregon was the leader in statewide land-use zoning. And indeed, its strict laws have helped slow down urban sprawl and preserved rural vistas. But on Dec. 2, Oregon became the national leader in upholding property rights against aesthetic zoning.

Under Measure 37, a ballot initiative passed by more than 60 percent of the state's voters last month, landowners can be compensated if they prove their property values were reduced by almost any government regulation.

Or, if government can't afford the money for compensation, a waiver can be granted to let a property be used any old way, whether to build a Wal-Mart or rows of McMansions.

This landowners' revolt, if it spreads to other states, could create havoc with the nation's landscape. Or it may simply rebalance the occasional excesses of overzealous but well-meaning government planners.

Oregon's big experiment should be closely watched, both for the clever defenses that some town officials are putting up or for the number of lawsuits the measure is expected to spawn.

Legal battles over property rights have become more common in recent decades. The US Supreme Court has carefully tried to define circumstances under which the "just compensation" clause of the Constitution requires government to pay property owners when regulations "take" value out of private land. It's not easy.

Many regulations enhance property values, while a lack of zoning can often bring values down. Finding the right balance is difficult for any community. In fact, the best zoning is done locally in order to accommodate unique local needs, and not by the state.

Still, Measure 37 sends this intended message: If voters want to regulate property, they should also tax themselves to compensate property owners who lose out.

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