Viewpoint: Whose property rights matter more?

By Sam Hamill

Property owners are entitled to do what they wish with their property.

This frequently repeated proposition is being put to a test in the town of Tremont, where an egregiously oversized campground promises to overwhelm local roads, the rural landscape, environmental quality and public services.

But as a neighbor, are not my property rights to safe and uncongested roads, to unpolluted air and water, to the fire, police and emergency services that my taxes fund, and to the quiet and pleasant surroundings I have come to love at least equal to one real estate developer’s profit motive?

Multiply my rights by those of the many year-round and summer residents of Tremont, and do these not far outweigh the interests of any single landowner?

An assertion of unlimited landowner entitlement is simply incorrect – in common sense, morality and the law.

The Tremont land development ordinance states, as its leading purpose, “To protect the health, safety and welfare of the community.” Nowhere in the text of the ordinance are the interests of a real estate developer stated.

The validity of zoning – the most important but hardly the only means of land use regulation – has been upheld consistently in state and federal courts for well over a hundred years. Over these years, the scope of land use regulations has expanded steadily as our understanding of the public costs of single real estate development projects and even of patterns of development has grown.

Traffic is the most obvious example. From a single subdivision it may seem inconsequential, but what if all the subdivisions permitted in a particular zone were built out?

Groundwater is equally to the point. One well may draw little water, but what about many wells? Same goes for water pollution, soil erosion, tree cutting – and on to community services such as ambulances, police and fire protection. The aggregate and longer-range impacts and costs of land development to neighbors near and far can soon overwhelm a small town.

Increased visitation at Acadia National Park and demand for seasonal and year-round homes are leading to dramatic growth pressures. Land and housing costs are rising, out of reach for most young families – a critical public issue. There is uneasiness among year-round and seasonal residents regarding erosion of the “rural” character of the community.

Despite the best intentions of many elected and appointed local government volunteers, rural town are poorly served – either with local laws, administrative practices or professional help – to manage even one complicated real estate proposal, much less a pattern of future growth. Such is the case now in Tremont.

Approval of the campground by the Tremont Planning Board would in effect validate a land use ordinance that virtually everyone agrees is out of date and inadequate to mounting development pressures.

Given the New England tradition of volunteer, and often minimal, local government, it often takes a particularly egregious event to capture public attention to the inadequacies of the land management systems in place. But there are signs now of a vigorous movement among year-round and seasonal residents to address the future of the Tremont. That’s good news.

Sam Hamill is a retired land use planner and resident of Tremont.

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