This is a good question, and a difficult one to answer without broad generalizations that necessarily ignore some very progressive land use systems that are starting to gain traction (for example, in Oregon). I believe, and this is my own personal opinion, that the main problems with land use laws are cultural. In America and most other Western democracies, the right to own and control property is deeply engrained in both our economic and political systems. Thomas Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence, for example, listed our certain inalienable rights as “life, liberty and property” which was later changed to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” As our capitalist economy has evolved, the right of property has been seen as the springboard to a fundamental right to economic gain. Since this right is deeply at the root of our government principles, it’s found its way into the land use arena by consciously or unconsciously stressing profitable commercial uses for land as more appropriate than socially or environmentally conscious uses, which may not be the most profitable.
As land use regimes in the United States evolve, they are beginning to take into account interests other than economic maximization. Environmental stewardship has become a key feature in many land use regimes, which naturally causes tension with property rights. How this tension is to be resolved is going to be an interesting process to watch over the next 10, 20 or 50 years, but I do believe it will be, if not resolved, at least eased by a growing cultural understanding that socially and environmentally responsible uses of property are as legitimate as economically profitable ones, and that there’s room in our land use and legal systems to accomodate all of these values.
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