Missoula County Commissioners contemplate zoning away Plum Creek’s Property RIghts


“The problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money.” 

That famous quote by former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is vividly playing itself out in Athens, Greece for the whole world to watch and learn from.  The Greek government simply ran out of working people’s money it could distribute to vast numbers of over-paid government employees and other demanding citizens, in the form of generous pensions, excessive paid vacations, free health care, ridiculously early retirements, and various other entitlements. 

The Greek population’s insatiable demand for other people’s money led to an insolvent government, resulting in other European people now working to maintain the unearned, undeserved, but expected lifestyle of the Greeks, many of whom are protesting in the streets simply because the people bailing them out expect a few sacrifices.

Socialistic thought creeps into a political system at the margins.  We learn that a majority of us can elect a candidate who will give us something we want—usually something that belongs to someone else.  It was earned, paid for, maintained, and improved by someone else.  We may not get it all at once, but we can get little slices of it incrementally by demanding public policy changes of our elected officials.

Ms. Thatcher’s quote could be amended to say, “the problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s property.”

In communities throughout Montana, people are demanding a sliver, or sometimes a hunk, of the value of someone else’s property, and county commissioners in particular appear all too eager to appease this incremental erosion of private property rights. 

Legitimate subdivisions are denied because people living in adjacent subdivisions don’t want new neighbors.  They believe they are entitled to the open view and a place to walk their dogs, even though someone else pays taxes on that land.  Rural residents, opposing a gravel pit on a neighbor’s property, are running to County commissioners with surprising success,  demanding instant zoning restrictions on gravel extraction so they can continue enjoying the values provided by someone else’s property.

One of the most egregious examples is unfolding in Missoula County, where commissioners are entertaining, if not advancing, a notion they should provide a public good by seizing the property rights of Plum Creek Timber Company.  Through an audacious proposal to create a so-called “Resource Protection Area,” the county would zone tens of thousands acres to preclude the property owner from selling parcels for residential use. 

The loudest proponents of this idea of course, are the people who have already carved out their small parcel of paradise.  While alleging Plum Creek would degrade the wildlife resource by subdividing, these enlightened residents are obliviously flushing sewage into Placid Lake and spewing petroleum into the pristine water through their outboard motors.

If the County establishes a zoning district solely to preclude the timber company from realizing the development value of the land it owns, what’s to stop Plum Creek from leasing the recreational rights to an outfit like Cabellas, as has been recently rumored?  Just because the company has generously allowed hunters, fishermen and recreationists to use hundreds of thousands of acres for free in the past, this is a privilege, not a “right” or an entitlement. 

If Missoula County uses zoning to deny Plum Creek one way of extracting value from the property it owns, why wouldn’t the company seek to realize the value in other ways, such as leasing a bundle of rights to someone like Cabellas?  If Montana sportsmen lose access to Plum Creek lands, they can thank Missoula County Commissioners, because the law of unintended consequences most surely will kick in.

County governments must be kept in check.  Private property rights are fundamental to our capitalist system that rewards people for their efforts.  If we allow county commissioners, or any other elected officials, to continually seize the rights of one property owner and hand those rights at no cost to someone else, we are on a slippery slope. 

 Cary Hegreberg lives in Helena where he works for the Montana Contractors’ Association representing Montana’s commercial/industrial and public works construction professionals.

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