Land Use and Environmental Law

As a scarce and necessary resource for earthly activity, land triggers competition and conflict over its possession, use, development, and preservation. For privately owned land, the market manages much of the competition through its familiar allocative price-setting features. At the same time, because use of land in one location affects the interests of neighbors and the general public and because market mechanisms alone do not always protect or advance such interests, government has enacted land use and environmental laws that significantly affect how land is handled. Expressed through local ordinances, higher-level legislation, constitutions, discretionary governmental decisions, administrative regulations, judicial opinions, and private agreements, these laws affect the look, feel, character, and composition of cities, suburbs, and rural areas everywhere.

This course introduces students to the content and controversies of land use and environmental laws. No prior legal knowledge is presumed. The purpose of the course is to provide students with a basic understanding of the theories, rationales, techniques, and implementing institutions involved in legally controlling the possession, use, development, and preservation of land. Particular attention is paid to law’s intended and unintended impacts on the physical pattern of built environments and resulting social and economic outcomes, on the increasing overlap of land use law and environmental law regimes especially when climate change and urban resilience are front and center, and on the tensions between individual rights and asserted socio-economic goals often resolved within the context of constitutional law by the courts. Law’s approach is distinguished from those employed by other fields and disciplines. The role of the non-lawyer professional (planner, designer, public policymaker, developer, activist, etc.) in the crafting and implementation of land use and environmental laws is highlighted. Although United States law provides the principal material for the course, comparisons with legal regimes in other countries are regularly made. For better and worse, United States law has been a key reference point for planning and environmental laws worldwide.

The legal techniques explored in the course include laws dealing with zoning, subdivisions, growth management, transfer of development rights, exactions and impact fees, form-based codes, environmental impact reviews, wetlands and water, endangered species, clean air, solid and hazardous waste disposal, design review, environmental justice, climate change, historic preservation, energy siting, billboard/sign/cell tower controls, eminent domain, building codes, and private homeowner associations. Course readings are drawn from primary sources, including local ordinances, higher level legislation, constitutions, judicial opinions, and private agreements, and from secondary sources, including law review and journal articles, book excerpts, and professional reports. Assignments include a five-page paper and a final exam.