The Land Question
by Merrian Fuller, Susan Witt, and Dane Springmeyer
E. F. Schumacher Society
“We abuse the land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”
– Aldo Leopold, “A Sand County Almanac” (1949)
If our goal is to create vibrant local economies and the local institutions that support them, what is the role of land in such economies? Robert Swann, founder of the E. F. Schumacher Society, argued that land should not be treated as a commodity that is bought and sold but rather should be held in trust by the regional community, and access to land should be via social contract not market forces. To implement his ideas, Bob shaped the Community Land Trust movement that began in 1967.
A Community Land Trust is a form of common land ownership with a charter based on the principles of sustainable and ecologically sound stewardship and use. The central principle of the Community Land Trust is that homes, barns, fences, gardens, and all things done with or on the land should be owned by the individuals creating them, but the land itself–a limited community resource–should be owned by the community as a whole.
A Community Land Trust takes land off the speculative market and places it in a regional, membership-based, nonprofit corporation. The decentralist Ralph Borsodi, a mentor of Bob Swann, called land speculation “legal robbery.” Henry George, the nineteenth century American economist, pointed to this ability to derive “unearned increment” from the land as the major economic cause of the increasing discrepancy between the rich and the poor. In his book “Progress and Poverty,” George shows how the ability to monopolize land, which all people need access to for housing and earning a living, can create an illusion of progress. At the same time the rising rents, which build prosperity for a few, lead to increased poverty for others.
Since the public at large creates the value in land because of a need to use it, it is the public at large that is being “robbed” when an individual is allowed to pocket the unearned increment. Borsodi distinguished what was created with human effort from what was naturally given as a common inheritance, and he suggested that land as well as natural resources should be held in trust for the common good.
The Community Land Trust’s primary function is to buy or accept gifts of land and lease it back to members under a 99-year lease that is inheritable and automatically renewable. Through the 99-year land lease, the trust removes land from the speculative market and facilitates multiple uses such as affordable housing, agriculture, and open-space preservation. Part of this process is to determine–in conjunction with land use planners, local government, and the community at large–the most appropriate use or uses for a given parcel of land, be it a wildlife refuge, a group of houses, a managed woodlot, a commercial development, or vegetables grown for the local market.
As Bob Swann pointed out, “A Community Land Trust can be used as a holding mechanism for all sizes and tracts of land. Some of these tracts may be large enough to build entire new towns (large or small) or simply be used as farms or as conservation tracts. Because large segments of land are held as a unit, the trust can utilize the greatest flexibility in planning, taking account of the ecological and social characteristics of the entire region.”
The legal framework for Community Land Trusts is well established, providing a way for concerned citizens, working together, to create solutions to the problem of the high cost of land for affordable housing, farming, and local businesses in their region.
Since 1980 the E. F. Schumacher Society has assisted Community Land Trust initiatives around the country, including the Community Land Trust in the Southern Berkshires. As part of this process, Schumacher staff members have developed a how-to handbook for Community Land Trust organizers. The handbook contains background materials and model legal documents used in the innovative community partnership to save Indian Line Farm, the first Community Supported Agriculture farm in the US, and in the creation of Forest Row, a neighborhood of eighteen homes clustered in a mix of multiple and single units on twenty-one acres in Great Barrington. This handbook can now be accessed online at http://www.smallisbeautiful.org/frameset_land.html. These documents should be reviewed by a lawyer in your own region before using, but they serve as an important blueprint for action.
Posted with permission of the E. F. Schumacher Society. For more information on their work, see http://www.smallisbeautiful.org.