Land Use and Environmental Law

As a scarce and necessary resource, land triggers competition and conflict over its possession and use.  For privately owned land, the market manages much of the competition through its familiar allocative price-setting framework.  However, because one person’s use of privately owned land affects the individual and collective interests of others and because market mechanisms alone are not always adequate to protect or promote such interests, laws enacted by legislative bodies, administered by government agencies, and reviewed by courts play a significant role in determining the use of land.

Encompassed in local ordinances, higher-level legislation, administrative rules, constitutions, judicial opinions, discretionary governmental decisions, and private agreements, land use laws and environmental laws shape the look, feel, and socio-economic dynamics of cities, suburbs, and rural areas worldwide.  For example, zoning’s use restrictions affect whether neighborhoods are homogeneous or heterogeneous, its density and lot area restrictions scatter, cluster, or even drastically curb housing production, its height and setback restrictions sculpt the skyline.  Environmental laws govern the extent to which land uses pollute air, water, and land, whether habitat is available for endangered species, whether wetlands are preserved, and whether individuals build in areas vulnerable to floods, hurricanes, forest fires, and earthquakes.  Do these laws achieve the types of environments desired by everyone?  Do they serve some groups more than other groups?  Are they an undue infringement on individual rights to property, free speech, and other constitutionally protected rights?  Do they stifle design creativity?  Are they up to the task of addressing the anticipated consequences of climate change?

This course is about land use laws and environmental laws and introduces students to their content and controversies.  Although the course operates on the assumption that incoming students have no legal knowledge or background, those with a background in law can also benefit.  Students will gain a working knowledge of popular legal techniques, their implementing institutions, and their judicial reception, along with an understanding of theories that explain and justify the demand for law’s control over privately owned land.  For pedagogical reasons, laws from the United States will be used as primary sources, but comparisons and distinctions with laws in other countries will be regularly made.  The role of non-lawyer professionals, such as planners, designers, public policymakers, real estate developers, and community activists, in influencing, drafting, and implementing land use and environmental laws, is unpacked.  The course defines and distinguishes law’s method from those employed by other disciplines and fields.  Reading assignments come from primary sources, such as legislation, judicial opinions, and constitutions, as well as secondary sources such as law review articles, journal articles, book excerpts, and professional reports.  A written exercise requires students to examine one provision in a zoning ordinance and draft its replacement.  An oral final exam will measure overall fluency with the subject matter.

Jointly Offered Course: HKS SUP-663