Environmental Regulations Sending Americans to the Poorhouse, by John Carlisle

“I just don’t know what I’m going to do now. I’m in so much debt and I have to take care of my 13-year-old son who suffers from Lyme disease.”

Thanks to the government, Peggy Ann Buckley is millions of dollars in debt and is fast losing faith that the American justice system will right the wrong inflicted on her. For eight years, Peggy Ann, a divorced single mother, has waged a costly legal battle to get California to pay her $3 million after the California Coastal Commission illegally ordered her to stop building a house on land she and her ex-husband had purchased for nearly $500,000. Although the courts ruled that the Coastal Commission had no legal right to stop Peggy Ann from building, the courts refused to compensate her for the $2 million in damages she sought for losing the use of her property and the $1 million she had accrued in legal bills.1 Desperate for justice, Peggy Ann petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to hear her case. Her last hope was dashed when the Court turned her down this past October. Unable to build her house, Peggy Ann lives in a trailer on the property. Besides having to worry about her son, whose condition is so bad she has to teach him at home, Peggy Ann must now find a way to pay her exorbitant bills.

Peggy Ann Buckley’s story is just one of 100 profiled in the National Directory of Environmental and Regulatory Victims, soon to be released by The National Center For Public Policy Research. Some of the individuals written about in the directory are victims of poorly-written laws, while others have been plagued by a web of confusing and sometimes contradictory regulations. These stories describe the real-world consequences when constitutionally-protected property rights are systematically undermined through regulations that ostensibly promote laudable objectives such as protecting wetlands, endangered species or other major environmental goals.

But not only are environmental regulations frequently enforced at the expense of property owners, in many cases the regulations don’t even make sense.

Oregon resident Jim Watts found this out first-hand when Deschutes County stopped him from developing his 40-acre property allegedly to protect a forest. The problem: There wasn’t a forest to protect.

Jim’s saga started in 1994 when he tried to sell one of his three land parcels to raise money to retrain himself following a workplace accident that forced him to change careers. A realtor had appraised each parcel at $250,000. But Watts was shocked to learn that he could not sell the land because the county had zoned his property as “forest” and, as a consequence, would not issue the necessary building permit. The county had changed the regulations the year before to prohibit building on private property zoned as “forest.” Jim was puzzled by the restriction, to say the least. His land is so arid that it can’t support trees. Thanks to the county’s regulation, the value of Jim’s property plummeted from $750,000 to $2,000.2

In another example of regulations gone awry, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) agents wrongly arrested North Carolina businessman Earl Peck in 1995 and ruined his once-thriving mail order food business. The FWS and the State of North Carolina claimed that Earl, who specialized in filling orders from restaurants seeking exotic meats, was violating laws protecting endangered species when he sold black bear meat to an undercover agent. But the transaction was perfectly legal. Peck purchased the black bear meat from a USDA-inspected South Dakota supplier. The North Carolina Wildlife Commission claimed that Earl was breaking a state law that forbids the sale of bear and deer meat. But that law was aimed at protecting bear and deer native to the state, not from elsewhere. Peck was eventually exonerated by the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and in 1996 the U.S. Attorney’s office dropped its prosecution of Earl due to “insufficient federal interest.”3 But that was not enough to save Peck’s business. Because state officials still will not give him a definitive answer over what he can and cannot sell, he is afraid to start his business again.

Says Earl, who now works part-time jobs, “It’s really hard to go to work for somebody else when you were once a successful small business owner.”

There are more intelligent ways to protect the environment. Most Americans rightly view environmental protection as a worthy goal but most Americans also do not believe in enforcing environmental protection laws in a way that ruins the lives of decent, hardworking people like Peggy Ann Buckley, Jim Watts and Earl Peck. If balance is not soon restored to environmental policy, the number of these tales of personal tragedy will only grow.


John K. Carlisle is the director of The National Center for Public Policy Research’s Environmental Policy Task Force. Comments may be sent to [email protected].

1 Peggy Ann Buckley v. California Coastal Commission, United States Supreme Court, 1999.
2 “County Zoning Flip-Flop Costs Disabled Worker $750,000,” Posthaste Facts on the Environment #29, The National Center For Public Policy Research, October, 1999.
3 Nikihl Deogun, “Bear Facts: A Bust Has People Asking ‘What’s the Beef?,'” The Wall Street Journal, May 10, 1996.

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