Matthei lectures on property use, land policy reforms

Chuck Matthei, founder and president of the Land Equity Trust, spoke Wednesday on the topic of “Land Reform and Environmental Justice: Linking Conservation and Community Development.” The lecture was held in conjunction with campus Earth Week celebrations.

Matthei began his speech by addressing the notion of land ownership and conceptions of public and private property. He said that, although Americans have paid more attention to environmental issues in the recent past, property and land value are vastly understudied. Matthei cited the fact that, while 10,000 colleges and universities in the United States have environmental studies programs, only about 10 percent of them address the issue of property.

“There’s not much dialogue on the issue of ownership, and the little that happens is highly polarized,” he said. “People enter into such a conversation very warily, with many landowners fearing that others just want to take their land away.”

He continued by describing the three dimensions of property: environmental, social and economic.

Matthei used examples of aging nuns in Chicago facing the prospect of selling their convents and of a dairy farmer in Maine who couldn’t pay the market price for his agricultural land to illustrate his point about multiple valuations of property. He described how interests in the property exist beyond those of the property owners but aren’t reflected in the market evaluation of the land. Matthei explained that neighbors and other parts of the community had viable interests in how land is managed and that balancing these interests is imperative to future conservation efforts.

“Forget about property as a construct of law and the market,” Matthei instructed the crowd. “Instead, think about how the web of common interests would distribute property. It can be spread in creative ways.”

Next, he returned to the case of the Maine farmer who couldn’t afford to pay the market asking price to buy the land that he was renting. Since his farming provided benefits to many others around the property, there was community interest in shielding the farm from development. Parties ranging from the town, a wildlife conservation group and a snowmobile club contributed money to protect their multitude of interests.

Matthei then brought up the notion of environmental justice in case on Sapelo Island, Ga. where native Gullah people were finding it difficult to maintain their culture. Much of the underrepresented group’s property was transferred into state wildlife preserve, and rich outsiders were buying other parcels.

“How do we balance these issues?” Matthei asked. “How can we not only protect the environment but also the people within it?”

One potential solution to which Matthei has a close connection is the formation of a land trust. He spoke of cases where land trusts, or private groups that purchase land and regulate its development, had been quite successful in maintaining community and ensuring conservation. The land would be made available for people to live or work on, Matthei explained, but it would never be sold again. When the property experienced “social appreciation,” or an increase in market value due to social factors such as community, the land tenant would pay back a percentage to the land trust. The tenant would also receive compensation for any improvements made to the land.

He went on to explain how land trusts could operate economically, and how they could have been successful in the 1980s during the savings and loans crisis and the sell of three million acres of farmland in the Farm Belt. He concluded by discussing how the federal government could play a role in forming land trusts and what he had learned from studying international conceptions of property.

After the lecture, Matthei had dinner with students and faculty and participated in a discussion on the topic “Making a Life, Making a Living, and Making Life Better for Others.”

Matthei’s presentation was sponsored by the Center for Environmental Studies, the Gaudino Fund and the Purple Druids.

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