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 land affects individual and collective interests of others and market mechanisms alone do not always protect or promote such interests, laws enacted by legislative bodies, administered by government agencies, and reviewed by courts have arisen to fill the gap.
Encompassed in local ordinances, higher-level legislation, administrative rules, discretionary government decisions, constitutions, and judicial opinions, land use laws and environmental laws significantly shape the built and natural environment. For example, zoning’s use and density restrictions affect whether neighborhoods are demographically diverse or homogeneous, 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, and whether wetlands are preserved. Recently enacted laws are beginning to address the impacts of climate change, determining whether and how individuals may build or rebuild in areas vulnerable to floods, severe storms, forest fires, heat waves, and droughts.
Through lectures, discussions, readings, and a written exercise, this course provides students with a working knowledge of land use laws and environmental laws, the institutions that create, implement, and review them, and the issues that swirl around them. The course distinguishes law’s method from those employed by other disciplines and fields. The role of non-lawyers, including urban planners, designers, public policymakers, developers, and community activists in influencing, drafting, and implementing land use and environmental laws, is explored.
No prior legal background is assumed. Students with a legal background have found the course instructive. For pedagogical reasons, laws employed in the United States will be the main references, but comparisons with laws in other countries will be regularly made. Reading assignments are drawn from primary sources (legislation, constitutions, judicial opinions) and secondary sources (law review and journal articles, book excerpts, professional reports). A written exercise asks students to critically examine one provision of a zoning law and draft its replacement. An oral final exam will test overall fluency with the course subject matter.

Jointly Offered Course: HKS SUP-663