Doing Good With Other People’s Money

Here’s a cute story from New Jersey. The New York Times (Kareem Fahim, A Small Site in the War Between Space and Development, N.Y. Times, Apr. 8, 2008, at p. C14) reports that in Mine Hill a farmer wants to preserve his 77-acre farm. It’s described by the Times as “more rust than rustic,” but it’s a farm just the same, even if it is surrounded by developed land and is zoned for office and industrial use. So you’d think that local land-use regulators – the folks who are always lecturing us about the virtues of open land preservation and the horrors of diminishing agricultural lands – would applaud this civic-minded gesture. The 72-year old farmer, John Paschal, wants to enter the state farm preservation program whereby the State of New Jersey would pay him 70% of the land’s market value in exchange for his promise that it would remain a farm forever.  

But guess what? This time it’s the town officials who are objecting – those worthies do not want Paschal to preserve his farm, no sir. They want it developed, perhaps into a parking lot. Why would those public servants (a genre that is ever ready to go to the barricades for the sake of environmental preservation) take a position like that? Money, that’s why. 

It seems that public finances in the Garden State aren’t what they used to be, and Mine Hill is losing $193,000 in state aid this year – a not insignificant amount for a community of 3700 people. So the City Mothers have been born again and want to get their hands on the increased tax revenues that would flow from conversion of Paschal’s farm into a productive money-making operation, and never mind growing patooties and all that other good green stuff.

 As usual, there is a moral to this story. Usually, those who are hectoring us to do right for the environment by preserving farms and leaving land undeveloped, expect that the cost of preservation will fall on the preserved land’s owners, and never mind their protestations that this drastically reduces their land values, and in some cases may be so severe as to amount to a de facto taking of their property – i.e., leaving them with no productive use, with only naked legal title and the dubious honor of having to pay taxes and bear other burdens and liabilities of property ownership.  But now it turns out in this case that the cost of preservation is about to fall on the community that gets to enjoy the benefit of open space. Now that it has to pay for the benefit itself rather than consume the proverbial “free lunch” at the property owner’s expense, it would just as soon skip the environmental benefit of open space preservation and take the money instead.

It’s an old, old verity that there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. Someone always has to pay the price of sought-after benefits. And sometimes – miracle of miracles – justice is done and that price has to be paid by the folks who get the benefit. Is that bad? Not by our lights. We hew to the old maxim of jurisprudence that he who gets the benefit should bear the burden. It’s the law, you know – it says so right in California Civil Code § 3521.