When “Our” Land Becomes the Government’s Land


At least during my entire lifetime, Americans have tended to romanticize the notion of government, as if it’s a sort of public trust that simply follows along according to the stated intentions of the people forever.  But private trusts very often drift away from the desires of their founders, and government is an entity that will act in its own interests.  Giving a piece of property to the government (or giving it money to buy the property) feels like saving that property from the whims of its owners, but all it really does is change the owners and the things that they’re likely to value.

Two stories today from over here on the Sakonnet River highlight this lesson.  Jo C. Goode reports for the Fall River Herald News that the city is hoping to receive approval from the state to line the highways with more billboards:

The administration is proposing eight sites along Interstate 195 and Route 24 on city owned land. …

Mayor Jasiel Correia II last summer announced the billboard project and claimed that the digital billboards could generate $10 million to $15 million up front in lease agreements, with a projected annual revenue stream of $650,000 to the city for the next 20 years.

And in Tiverton, an independent water district has received permission from the town council to sell off some of its open space, according to Marcia Pobzeznik of the Newport Daily News:

The Stone Bridge Water District request to change zoning of a 4.8-acre parcel it owns at the end of North Brayton Road, near the new Ranger School, from open space to residential was approved by a majority of the Town Council Monday night amid a concern by a couple that this could set precedent. … The proceeds would be used to build a new office building that would be handicapped accessible. …

Civil engineer Donald Medeiros, who accompanied Corr and explained the plan to the Town Council, said the district is no longer eligible for state and federal grants because it does not meet Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines. Having an office that is handicapped-accessible would put the district in line for grants again.

The district has a financial need, and at the end of the day, this open space is just an asset.

The conversation of the council is telling, though.  John Edwards the Fifth voted against the plan and asked why the Stone Bridge district couldn’t come to an agreement to share office space with the small town’s other independent water district in North Tiverton.  Council Member Tricia Hilton* protested that “she would not want Stone Bridge to instead have to raise water rates to build a new office building.”

As a tangential part of the story, one should note that the tax rate for water in the Stone Bridge district, with its more-expensive real estate, has a tax rate of $0.50 per $1,000, while North Tiverton’s rate is $0.98, almost double.  Blurring the lines of this arrangement could raise uncomfortable questions about why the whole town shouldn’t have a single tax rate that shifts some of the town’s water burden from the working-class north end to wealthier areas.

The key point, however, is that “open space” is only as secure as the incentives of people in government allow it to be.  Maybe this land would have been sold for residential construction long ago had it not been handed over to the water district, or maybe it wouldn’t have been.  The story of the privately owned land that will now house a new casino in Tiverton shows both that people purchase open land for a variety of reasons and that the people who own things never forget that they have some value.

And maybe the Fall River land that will increasingly clutter the scenery with the messages of the highest bidder really is the highest use of that land, but drivers will surely have their doubts, and taxpayers should, as well.


* This post originally stated that Mrs. Hilton lives in the Stone Bridge district.  She does not; the district line ends north of her home.  Readers interested in the operation of water districts are encouraged to review the comments to this post.

  • Patricia Hilton

    Mr. Katz, I generally refrain from commenting on opinions but feel compelled to set the facts straight. I DO NOT live in the Stone Bridge Water District. I am not served by public water but instead have a private well which I am responsible for maintaining. Any rate increase would have no effect on me. The water districts, Stone Bridge and North Tiverton Fire District are quasi-governmental agencies enabled by acts of the general assembly. Neither entity is under the control of The Town of Tiverton or its council. I am unsure which taxes you are speaking of, property taxes? or the water district taxes? The water district’s taxation powers are granted by the general assembly for public water customers in their respective districts. They are separate and unrelated from the Town of Tiverton’s property taxes. One cannot shift “water taxes” out of the water districts to property owners in other parts of town who are not served by public water at all. I would suggest you better acquaint yourself with the nature of water/fire districts, their ability to tax and issue bonds, and what those funds are maybe used for. They are not “property taxes”. As noted, I would be unaffected by any change in water prices or water district taxes regardless of the outcome. My concern was for my fellow residents who WOULD be impacted by higher water costs. At a prior council meeting, the district indicated that increasing water rates would be the alternative to raise funds to address the federally mandated handicap accessibility issue. As to the land “being handed over” to the district in the first place, this is incorrect. Stone Bridge Fire District purchased the land from the previous owner, a private citizen, in 1965. I request that you please issue a retraction of the inaccuracies noted and also suggest you might do more research so as to present a better factual representation of the subject matter. Respectfully, Patricia Hilton, Tiverton Town Council

    • Justin Katz

      Mrs. Hilton,

      I have reviewed your comment and my post, and it seems to me that the only inaccuracy is my statement that you live in the Stone Bridge district. In my defense, despite a little bit of looking in the past, I hadn’t found a good resource for understanding the borders of the districts. I am grateful to you for pushing me to find this page, which includes maps. I have also removed the text that located your home in the district and modified the north versus south language slightly to be more accurate.

      That said, you go too far in attempting to proclaim my ignorance, perhaps because (not living in a water district) you don’t have experience with the two separate bills that those of us north of you receive each year. The water districts charge us for water usage, but they also charge a tax on our real estate that functions in the same way as the town’s property tax.

      If you’d read more carefully, you’ll note that I did label the water district as “independent,” and at no point did I suggest that the district is under your council’s control. Although, you did have power to authorize or not the rezoning for your fellow government officials’ property, and you explicitly explained your motivation as one of controlling the fees that it charges.

      As for the shifting of taxes, the source of the districts’ authority is immaterial, inasmuch as that source (whatever it may be) can modify the rules. If North Tiverton and Stone Bridge were to collocate in the same offices, people in the north might begin wondering why they pay twice the tax rate for the same thing. Their representatives could easily submit legislation to merge the districts and create a single rate.

      For that matter, if the General Assembly were to take such an action, it could just as easily expand the boundaries of the newly merged district to cover the whole town, which would lower the rate substantially, benefiting the poorer families in the north at really minimal expense to those in the south. That would put you in the same situation in which I find myself when it comes to our new wastewater treatment district, which (if I’m not mistaken) now has yet another taxing authority over my property even though there are no plans to bring the sewer system within reach of it.

      This creates incentive for anybody not in the North Tiverton district to prefer that all of these lines remain unblurred… even if they aren’t very easy to find on a map.

      Finally, as for the “inaccuracy” of how the district acquired that particular land, I again ask you to read more carefully. In the very first paragraph, I conflated a government’s being given land and being given the money to buy land. Whether a property owner donates property or the government entity buys it through debt, grant, or taxation doesn’t really matter to my point with this post.

  • guest

    Tough one to follow, Justin and I didn’t get past the billboards. Are you objecting to the City placing electronic billboards on its own property as a revenue source because it’s inconsistent with the “desires of their founders”

    As for the water district issue, the states special purpose “districts” are a textbook example of provincialism. Don’t expect a logical explanation for anything they inefficiently offer.

    • Justin Katz

      I’m not objecting to the billboards. I’m objecting to people treating government as if it doesn’t act like a self-interested entity.

      • Rhett Hardwick

        I thought billboards along interstate highways were forbidden by a federal law sponsored by “Mama Bird” Johnson back in the 60’s. “Dark Blue” Vermont forbids them almost everywhere.

        I have owned wetlands (and “bordering vegetated wetlands”) in Massachusetts, several times it has been recommended to me that I “donate” it to the city, or town. This being a veiled threat that they would never permit any practical use. Making it valueless.

      • guest

        One person’s “self-interested entity” is another person’s tax relief.

        • Justin Katz

          Yes, tax relief becomes one of the incentives to use land in this way. That gets to the important point: The incentives for use of property change when it is given to government. Is tax relief the best use of a particular piece of property? Probably not.

          • guest

            ” given to government”? I thought the government just takes things?

            So for you, selling the property for tax relief would be preferable? Maybe, but you have no idea why the government owns the property.

            How does the “incentives for use of property change” if the owner, regardless of whether it’s government or not is trying to maximize the use of it?