Landmark Property Rights Case Comes to an End

In what he termed a “bittersweet” victory, the grandson of late property rights advocate, Dorothy English, received a $1.15 million settlement from Multnomah County in Oregon. Mrs. English, the PR icon who bravely fought against government land abuses died at the age of 95, several years before her case could be settled.

The right to use ones property—both physical and intellectual—is a natural right which the Framers gave special protection to in the Constitution. This respect for property has lead America to be the richest and most prosperous country in history. The Framers understood that freedom means nothing if the fruits of ones labor could be expropriated at the whim of a powerful politician or bureaucrat.

Dorothy English understood this too. When she tried multiple times to develop her land, she was denied permits because the government rezoned her property into a protected commercial forest. As PRA noted earlier, the government has a long history of using environmental regulations to effectively seize private property for “public use.” As Mrs. English put it, "My lawyer researched it and found there were 61 regulations against my property—61!" Yet, instead of just lying down, she took action.

English became the face of a popular voter initiative, Measure 37. The Measure forced the government to either waive regulations, or provide compensation to land owners whose property values have decreased because of said regulation. It passed 61% to 39%. English became the first person to file a claim under the new law.

Unfortunately, the victory was short lived. Measure 49, an initiative that scaled back some of the gains made by Measure 37, was passed three years later in 2007. (Click here to view PRA’s press release condemning Measure 49) However, Oregon’s Supreme Court still ruled in English’s favor because she won her claim before Measure 49’s passage.

The case highlights the problems that arise when the government uses regulation to deny citizens any beneficial use of their property. Regulatory taking results in unintended consequences that adversely affect the free-market and make economic growth almost impossible. English’s land could have been used to spur the local economy by providing jobs for construction companies or housing developers. Instead, the land just sits there now.

Mrs. English said it best, “since my land can’t be used for anything, the community doesn’t generate any added tax revenue to pay for schools, parks and other services. My land has become worthless to everyone except those zealots who think Oregon should shut its borders and stop all growth.” PRA couldn’t agree more.