In win for property rights and the environment, Maine Supreme Judicial Court sides with coastal property owners

March 29, 2019 | By JONATHAN WOOD

In Ross v. Acadian Seaplants LTD, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court was asked to defend the rights of a coastal property owner against a large corporation’s assertion of the power to harvest rockweed from private property without owner consent. On Thursday, the court issued its long awaited decision, siding with the property owner. Because the property sought to exercise his property rights to conserve rockweed growing on his property—an important part of the coastal ecosystem—this is an important win for both property rights and conservation.

PLF, joined by our friends at the Property and Environment Research Center, filed an amicus brief supporting the property owner. In our brief, we explained that secure property rights are an essential tool for conservation.

The corporation’s claim that the public trust doctrine gave it an unqualified right to harvest rockweed threatened to destabilize property rights and worsen ongoing environmental conflict. Property rights, in contrast, enable markets to work such conflicts out amicably.

As we explain in our brief:

Suppose you were an environmental group who highly valued conserving rockweed in a particularly sensitive area. If the rockweed belongs to the property owner, your way forward is obvious: buy the rights to the rockweed and conserve it. But, if rockweed is within the public trust, it would be much harder to protect it. Rather than negotiating with an individual property owner, you would have to negotiate with everyone who might harvest the rockweed, a large and uncertain share of the public.

Too often, environmental regulation—especially at the federal level–discourages the creation of markets to resolve conflicting environmental values. Fortunately, Maine will not make the same mistake in this case. The Maine Supreme Judicial Court’s opinion recognizes that harvesting rockweed without the owner’s consent would significantly interfere with the owners property rights and could not withstand constitutional scrutiny.