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Preserving local jurisdiction

September 13, 2012

There’s been a lot of controversy at Upper Delaware Council (UDC) meetings recently with regard to private property rights, and their primacy in the River Management Plan (RMP). The controversy came to a head in the discussion leading up to the adoption of the UDC’s five-year plan last week. The document is prefaced by the results of a poll on the council’s top priorities that had been taken at a workshop in June, which in draft form listed “protect and respect private property rights and land use” as number one.

A number of members objected to leaving this result in the final draft, partly on the basis of faulty voting procedures, partly because not all member townships had a vote, but perhaps mainly because many felt that presenting the protection of private property rights as the single top goal is to misrepresent the RMP’s fundamental intent. They eventually agreed on a rewording that, with a couple of minor changes, combines the number one and number four goals specified on page 13 of the RMP itself. The resulting verbiage in the final five-year plan is: “Protect the unique scenic, cultural and natural resource values of the Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River and its immediate environs [number one] while protecting private property rights [number four].”

The discussion leading up to this resolution was lively, however, and it’s clear that an understanding of how the protection of property rights fits in with the RMP will continue to be the subject of debate in coming months. This seems like a good time, therefore, to review the RMP in detail to get an idea of the entire context of this issue.

Interestingly, the instance of the phrase “private property rights” quoted above, from page 13, is the only one in the entire RMP, according to a computer search. The related concept that does recur is that of local jurisdiction over land use. Indeed, at the meeting that point was stressed by National Park Service Superintendent Sean McGuinness, speaking about the exercise of that local jurisdiction as the way the RMP actually goes about protecting private property rights. A passage on page viii of the plan probably sums it up most concisely: “The River Management Plan clearly contemplates, and is predicated upon, local land use authorities, local discretion, and local land use enforcement.”