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Compromise marks property rights bill
By Andy Brack
S.C. Statehouse Report

JAN. 26, 2003 - - Property rights advocates and land use planning proponents have been at loggerheads for more than a half dozen years on what to do when small property owners believe the government has directly or indirectly taken away their right to enjoy their property.

For years, property rights advocates pushed proposals for reimbursements to landowners for improper "takings" if property lost value because of a zoning or land use decision. But land management proponents and government zoning officials resisted because they said changing the law on "takings" would weaken local attempts to manage growth and cost millions of dollars they didn't have.

But now thanks to time and compromise, both sides appear to have moved to the middle with a watered-down version of tough property rights proposals that have been circulating for years. This new plan would provide private property owners with an affordable, speedy relief mechanism but not bust budgets.

A Senate Property Rights Task Force has been at work over the last few months to craft legislation that would create a new mediation process landowners could use if they weren't happy with a ruling by a local zoning board. While mediation initially would keep the dispute out of circuit court, both sides agree it would speed up the process, provide a mechanism for a reasonable resolution and cost small landowners much less. Currently, it can take years and thousands of dollars for a dispute to be settled in court.

"This is a people's relief bill," said Senate Judiciary Chairman Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston. "It forces the government to deal with the small landowner."

Additionally, and perhaps as important, the bill being discussed would require local zoning and land use officials to receive educational training on how to resolve disputes better and to be more responsive to landowners.

"We believe one of the big problems has been the lack of understanding by local planning and zoning officials," said S.C. Sen. Larry Martin, a Pickens Republican who chairs the Senate subcommittee drafting the property rights proposal. "Our plan is to provide a remedy for most people to get recourse from a local appeals panel."

In short, the debate on "takings" and property rights has shifted from property owners getting money for a "taking" of property by government to a mediated dispute resolution process that seeks to allow reasonable people and government to reach reasonable compromises. If either side isn't happy with the mediated result, they still could pursue more costly court options.

"They understand and agree there is a process that allows reasonable people to get together and do reasonable things," said Neil Robinson, a Charleston lawyer who chairs the legislative committee for the S.C. Tourism Council.

Robinson, who for years has been at the forefront of working out a solution to help small property owners, said the newly-crafted proposal recognizes small landowners have rights that need to be protected and government has a responsibility to do more to work with them.

Environmentalists generally have been on the opposite side of property rights advocates because they worried a law that changed the legal definition of a property that had been "taken" would thwart land use planning. But since property rights advocates have backed off redefining the definition, it has been easier to reach an accord.

Not everyone appears to be happy, though. The S.C. Association of Counties says it supports clarifying uncertainty and an expedited process, but it wants to ensure any mediated agreement gets the blessing of local governments so bad precedents aren't set. It also wants to ensure neighboring landowners aren't negatively impacted by any mediated agreement.

The devil is in the details. But one way or another in the next couple of months, it looks like the Senate will consider a property rights bill that mollifies landowners, land use planning officials and the environmental community.


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