Property Rights Update


Never been to the Hamptons, but I listen to a radio station out of eastern Long Island and here's their big news this week:

Concerned that landowners were clearing too much natural vegetation from their properties, the East Hampton Town Board yesterday approved new regulations to limit the practice.

The new law sets a sliding scale detailing what percentage of the natural vegetation on different size properties can be cleared. For example, all vegetation can be cleared on a quarter-acre lot but no more than 25 percent of the vegetation can be removed on a half-acre or one-acre lot.

"Clearing" is defined to include the removal of not only plants, but also ground cover including "leaf litter and other organic detritus."

Supposedly, the board showed mercy with a last minute change to allow the removal of poison ivy. But homeowners still need a permit to clear affected portions of their land, even if it's to plant a garden.

And while aerial photography helps fight terror and makes interesting magazine covers, it may be dangerous in the hands of municipal authorities. From the town's Q&A:

Q. My yard is already cleared and has been for many years. Does this law affect me?
A: No, if your lot was cleared before the enactment of this legislation. Part of your proof for the pre-existence of the clearing will be the recent aerial photographs taken by the Town.

NEXT: News Flash: Pentagon Wastes Millions of Taxpayer Dollars!

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  1. Less vegetation=greater runoff.

    See the recent Haitian floods for an example.

    Leaving the native vegetation would benefit the landowners (many reasons)-but they are apparently too ignorant to realize it.

    I support their rights to strip the land and put chrysanthenums there-but it's like supporting someone's right to drop out of high school. Good for you...yeah.

  2. Creepy and Lonewacko,
    I understood that less vegetation = more runoff, but that is partially due to the plants themselves storing and giving off water into the atmosphere rather than it becoming groundwater. However, I looked around a little and found that roots and "tunneling soil organisms" (like those grubs that suck on tree roots and which became beautiful cicadas here recently) make it easier for water to be absorbed into the ground.

  3. 10. What are the benefits of complying with this legislation?

    A: We will only throw your ass in jail for other reasons.


    "I support their rights to strip the land and put chrysanthenums there-but it's like supporting someone's right to drop out of high school. Good for you...yeah."

    I like it. The price of liberty is that your moron neighbor has it too.

  4. Kent, creepy, and Lonewacko,

    Those are part of the explanation. I am not a hydrologist per se, but I do quite a bit of hydrology analysis (as part of my job) and the aeration of the ground due to plant roots, animals, and insects is a major factor in groundwater recharge. I'd guess that this is roughly the same for lawn areas as wooded areas in this case, tho, since they aren't clearing land in the Hamptons to leave it as bare earth, but probably for lawn areas. A large part is also runoff, but not because the ground cover is thicker vegetation, but because the relative lack of direct rainfall on the ground in forested areas doesn't make the ground hardened or glazed, and the storage effects of the rain falling first on the trees and then onto the ground, or down the trunks allows for more of the rain that falls to be absorbed, leading to the lower runoff amounts. Also, leaf litter cover in the forest areas reduces the chances of hardening and impedes runoff.

    That only describes the amount of groundwater recharge. Their other effect, talking about filtration of runoff that becomes groundwater is something I'd imagine is arrived at kinda backwards, as personally I think a lawn area is better filtration than natural ground cover for runoff over a certain area, but the upkeep of that lawn area can involve the use of additional pesticides and nutrients, making it a net loss as far as water quality is concerned.

    I wonder if they've considered compensatory measures for allowing additional cutting but with mitigation. Things like rain gardens and biorentention areas enhance water quality and groundwater recharge with CLEAN water. However, the best would be a combination of smaller building and clearing areas, with treatment for all of the non-natural areas.

  5. "If the law was so beneficial to property owners, they wouldn't need a law in the first place. They'd already be doing what the law requires and enjoying all the supposed benefits."

    1. Ignorance

    2. Free Rider/Prisoner's dilemma/arms race. It is clearly in everyone's interest for everyone to leave natural vegetation. Each individual yard provides only a tiny amount of recharge, but all of them together make a huge difference. But it is in each individual's interest to have a nice yard. So you end up with everyone screwing their neighbors, and anyone doing the right thing being a sucker.

    Creepy, my neighbor dropping out doesn't effect me. Contaminated or insufficient drinking water does.

  6. Kent, creepy, and Lonewacko,

    OK, it's official, I'm changing my blog name.

  7. When I lived in Indiana, my neighbor let his yard go into a "natural" state -- foot-tall grass, dense underbrush, trees sprouting through the fence. It was probably a plus for water recharge, but meant longer hours for my dogs in the form of killing rats and fighting off racoons that eminated from there.

  8. Everyone's a libertarian until they want the government to control their neighbor's taste in shrubbery.

  9. As a former Long Islander, (born and raised, so please, don't nuke me) who grew up in nearby Brookhaven township, I understand what they are up to regarding the groudwater problem. Long Island is a 120-mile long sandbar. Groundwater is the only significant source of potable H2O. As early as the 1970's, Suffolk County actually banned the use of detergent for washing clothes, not because of the annoyance of algae bloom on ponds and lakes, but because the foaming agents (sulfites) leached from homeowners' cesspools and septic tanks into the aquifer. The natural process by which impurities would settle out of recharged groundwater was being thwarted by these chemicals. Detergent foam even showed up in surface water. See:

    The ban was repealed in 1981, as the detergent industry had introduced improved products, and people were smuggling Tide in from Nassau county anyway. Many areas also installed sewers, reducing the input of waste to the groundwater cycle.

    That an East End town would go so far in land use regulation may be due to the fact that the North and South forks are not part of the island's main aquifer, and have an even more tenuous water supply. That this may coincide with a snob zoning impulse is probably a bonus as far as they are concerned.

    New York City is supplied with fresh water from the mainland, piped from the Delaware River watershed. Nassau and Suffolk counties, nor any of the small private water companies on LI, never developed such a system, nor made agreeements to piggyback on NYC's arrangements.

    There are great advantages to living on islands, but abundant fresh water is not always on the list!

    Not all land use regulation on LI is motivated by what looks at first glance like rampant statism. Suffolk County was also a pioneer in the practice of purchasing development rights from landowners, usually farmers, to delay growth. Rather than pass regulations limiting an owner's ability to subdivide his property, which libertarians such as myself would see as a taking requiring compensation, the county legislature authorized writing checks to those who would agree not to break up their large tracts. The benefit to the county and the towns of not having to build new infrastructure, and avoiding more population pressure, was seen as worth the money. Working farms have not disappeared from the area.

    (blocks from Lake Michigan)

  10. "I'd guess that this is roughly the same for lawn areas as wooded areas in this case"

    Maintained lawns have very high runoff/low infiltration, because the soil is so compacted by foot traffic, lawn mowers, etc. Also, there are far fewer animals, roots, and insects in the soil beneath a lawn than in the soil beneath natural vegetation, for reasons like the removal of the animals' food plants, the destruction of habitat, the density of the compacted soil, and the treatment of the lawn.

  11. Nice post, kevrob.

  12. Stormwater engineering calculations differentiate between pervious surfaces (soil) and impervious surfaces (asphalt, concrete, etc). Stormwater designs generally revolve around two issues, water quality and water quantity.

    When rain falls onto the earth, some eventually recharges the aquifer (groundwater). Most of the filtration is done by the tens or hundreds of feet of soil, not the vegetation. The goal of a water quality facility is to retain water in a place like a vegetated swale long enough for it to infiltrate into the ground. Water quality issues occur when rain (aka stormwater) washes over impervious surfaces like parking lots picking up various contaminants. If the "dirty" water does not infiltrate into the ground, it (and its contaminants) are carried into streams and eventually into places like the Chesapeake Bay... a body of water with quality issues.

    The primary issue with "maintained lawns" is not infiltration, but the application chemicals including nitrogen. Many residential homeowners use excessive amounts of lawn chemicals and this leaches into ground and "sheet flows" into stormwater facilities. With all due respect, I am not aware of any engineering criteria that would reduce the differentiate between grass and "wild" vegetation.

    Turning the issue of water quantity, vegetation uses a fair amount of water. On the positive side, vegetation stablizes soil and enhances infiltration. If the municipality was concerned about the quantity of water recharge, a more effective solution would be to require every house to have an infiltration system to handle downspouts from rain gutters. In my opinion, regulating the type of vegetation is much more about aesthetics than water quality or quantity.

  13. Does this mean it will be illegal to rake leaves?

  14. So it is written. So it shall be done.

  15. Let's see, if I have a quarter acre lot, I can clear a quarter acre. However, if I have a lot twice as large, I can clear only half as large an area. Shows how much thought went into the regulation, doesn't it?

  16. Was this East Hampton or Zimbabwe?
    They're so easily confused.
    By the way, the music is better from Zimbabwe.

  17. What exactly are they concerned with here? Erosion? Aesthetics?

  18. Gary Gunnels,
    "Officials said they acted because the clear-cutting of natural trees and shrubs to plant lawns and ornamental bushes was changing the appearance of the town and reducing groundwater recharge."

    The Q&A actually mentioned that the removal of ground cover reduces filtration of (what becomes) groundwater and that lawn chemicals contaminate the groundwater. I'm no hydrologist, but I don't see how clearing the ground would reduce groundwater recharge. Maybe someone knowledgeable in the field might enlighten me - or maybe the guy who wrote the article didn't understand.

  19. More Q&A...
    10. What are the benefits of complying with this legislation?
    Answer: Thanks for asking. This law will benefit property owners by providing
    additional buffering between properties, sound deadening, and privacy, protecting our
    drinking water, helping to prevent pollution of our harbors and bays, providing additional
    wildlife habitat and preserving our scenic natural landscape.

  20. The link to the pdf of the Q&A addressed two of these questions: 100% of a 10K sq ft loot can be cleared, for the next tier it's the greater of 10K sq ft and 75% of the lot. So intermediate sizes aren't screwed.

    The stated reason for the reg. is that replacement of natural ground cover with landscaped lawn both reduces the groundwater filtration effectiveness and increases the quantity of pesticide and fertilizer in use, and the town believes this puts their aquifer at risk of contamination.

  21. Thanks, Keith. I didn't scroll down far enough in the Q&A and trusted the accuracy of the article.

  22. mike,
    If the law was so beneficial to property owners, they wouldn't need a law in the first place. They'd already be doing what the law requires and enjoying all the supposed benefits.

    Gary Gunnels/Jean Bart,
    Not entirely sure what motivated the council, but I am fairly sure what the council is NOT interested in.

  23. I'm no hydrologist, but I don't see how clearing the ground would reduce groundwater recharge.

    IANAH, but let's take two extremes: completely bare earth and dense foliage. Most water will run off the bare earth, perhaps forming channels. That's what you see in SoCal when it rains. You don't see that that much in the PacNoWest because the land is used to rain. But, it would still run off.

    The dense foliage would tend to trap the water. Some plants would store the water, it would stay on the plant leaves, the roots would tend to trap the water and keep it from running off, etc.

    This proposal makes sense from a community perspective. If many people cleared their properties, in addition to water problems that would reduce wildlife habitat and have the other negative impacts stated.

    If you want to complain about the authoritarian manner by which this is being enforced that's another matter. The people of this city presumably elected these people and they have enough money they can select replacements if they don't like the law.

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