The average American doesn't spend much time thinking about property rights. The freedom to buy and sell land is simply a fact of life. Indeed, private property is a building block of democracy.
But that easy acceptance is jarred when government takes property in the name of public purpose or bars certain uses - from blocking a development because of environmental rules to closing one type of business because a local government would rather see another kind of business.
Such moves are in line with the well-established authority of government to mandate certain uses of property for the public good - so long as the owners are justly compensated, as the Constitution requires.
But what is "just compensation"? That can be a thorny legal question, as shown by a case before the US Supreme Court. A Rhode Island man holds that state regulations protecting wetlands kept him from realizing the value of his coastal real estate.
This case might give the court an opportunity to craft a broad definition of "taking" and thus discourage such practices. The current court has been inclined to readjust the balance between public-interest claims and the rights of property owners.
But the Rhode Island case may be compromised by such questions as whether the landowner knew of the regulations when he acquired the land. The issues aren't clear-cut.
Other property-rights disputes - particularly those involving eminent domain actions by local authorities - raise questions about how officials justify "the public good." Consider the case of a Piscataway, N.J., farmer whose farm is threatened with condemnation and forced sale because the town wants to preserve it as green space. Or the Port Chester, N.Y., small merchants whose thriving downtown businesses face condemnation because town officials prefer more upscale retail development.
Few Americans would argue with government's need, on occasion, to acquire land to build roads, schools, and other public works - or to do away with clearly blighted buildings. But when the public purpose is less clear, and the level of compensation is in dispute, citizens may wonder just how real the government's need is.
Regulation and eminent domain are critical to government. But too many unreasonable "takings" will only erode the sanctity of property rights.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor