An important part of our institutional and cultural history is our understanding of a system of property interests. The most common trajectory of land-use regulation appears consistent with a property rights meta-narrative that informs multiple academic disciplines and levels of human interaction. This meta narrative suggests that all land-use decisions begin with an assumption about the nature and extent of property rights held by potentially affected landowners, and that the ultimate end of any land-use regime is to “protect” those assumed property rights from unwarranted or unjustified intrusion by government. Because the law is a distinct linguistic environment in which word choices, and definitions, have significant consequences, this assumed rhetorical landscape of a property dispute plays a significant role in determining the dispute’s ultimate outcome. In most land-use disputes, all participants make one important concession, or assertion, before the discussion begins. The often unchallenged assertion is the claim that the discussion is in fact about property rights. Once a particular property interest is characterized as a “right,” the community’s political capacity to regulate that property interest diminishes substantially. Consequently, our decisions to characterize as “rights” those settings, circumstances and relationships that are better and more accurately understood as “privileges” changes our focus from the community to the individual, and necessarily weakens the political justification for, and community understanding of, most resource- or community-protective ordinances.
This article considers contemporary property jurisprudence, theory, and conflict in a Hohfeldian context to demonstrate how our default rhetorical landscape leads to real and unnecessary negative social and environmental effects.