Over the past twenty years or so, there has been an explosion of local land trusts across the country. These trusts typically seek to preserve agricultural or environmentally sensitive parcels by purchasing the development rights from the owners of such parcels. At a recent meeting of the Washington County (VA) Board of Supervisors, Neal Kilgore of the Virginia Outdoors Foundation argued that “If a farmer has the right to sell his mineral rights, why should he not also have the right to sell his development rights?”
But are development rights really analogous to mineral rights? Mineral rights, like most of the rights we typically think a landowner is free to sell (e.g., timber, water, pasture, access) are innate characteristics of the land). Development rights are an artificial construct which have been bestowed on the land by the local political jurisdiction in most cases. So the cost of acquiring development rights for an agricultural parcel is directly tied to the nature of development rights granted to the parcel in the first place. What makes this even more odd is that in many cases the political body making the decision on what kind of development rights should be granted to a parcel is the same body that is deciding later to purchase those development rights.