A Message from President Mike Theo: Our Property Rights Crusade

 Mike Theo  |    October 11, 2017

‚ÄúUnder all is the land.‚ÄĚ These are the opening words to the REALTOR¬ģ Code of Ethics. Protecting, preserving and promoting land ownership is the underpinning of all things real estate. So central is the concept of protecting private property rights to our organization, that this principle is embodied in the opening line of our self-imposed ethical code of conduct ‚ÄĒ a code that has differentiated REALTORS¬ģ from everyday real estate licensees since 1913!¬†

So it‚Äôs no wonder that protecting property rights is a major focus of our advocacy efforts every legislative session. And in this pursuit, we have enjoyed a fair amount of success of late. In the past several sessions alone, a supportive state legislature and governor have approved a bevy of property rights-related laws dealing with placement of piers, maintenance of structures near water, protection of wetlands and development rights, notification to property owners of zoning changes, requiring courts to balance public and private property rights, analyzing the impact of new state rules on property rights, establishing vested rights for permit processes, and limits on adverse possessions ‚ÄĒ to just name a few.

That a real estate-related organization like ours supports property rights issues shouldn’t be a big surprise to anyone. But it’s not just us who support these rights. As we prepare to advance important property rights issues in the second half of this legislative session, we asked the public what they thought of these rights and these issues. In very significant ways, we found that most voters in Wisconsin share our passion and support for the protection and promotion of property owner rights.

In a survey* conducted in July, we asked voters to prioritize key issues that the governor and legislature should be working on. A substantial 61 percent of respondents placed a high or extremely high priority on protecting private property rights. In homage to the ever-present public-private tension inherent in nearly all property-related issues, we asked respondents which of the following they felt was more important: protecting the rights of private property owners to develop or sell their property or protecting the rights of a community to set standards for property use. By an impressive 65 percent to 33 percent, respondents said private property rights are more important. 

With that level of philosophical support, the survey then asked about a specific WRA-backed bill currently before the legislature, known as the Homeowners Bill of Rights. This legislation protects the ability of property owners to develop and sell existing lots adjacent to their property if development was allowed when the owner originally purchased the property. Local governments under the bill would be prohibited from requiring the merger of adjacent lots owned by the same person, or restricting the sale of those lots. The legislation is in part a response to the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in Murr vs. Wisconsin where the court ruled against the property owner.

After a brief explanation of the pending legislation, 57 percent of respondents said they favored the bill, and 34 percent said they were opposed. When asked a series of questions regarding which arguments in support of the legislation were most convincing, 82 percent of respondents cited the need to protect Wisconsinites who invest in property in our state. Eighty-one percent thought the need for consistency of property rights laws across the state so property owners know their rights was the most convincing reason lawmakers should support the law. Eight of 10 said the most compelling reason to support the bill was simple fairness. They thought changing the rules on property owners after they purchased a property was simply unfair. A large majority, 73 percent, found most persuasive the argument that local regulations should be encouraging property ownership in order to increase property values and thereby financially support our local schools and government services. 

It’s very encouraging to see that our core value of protecting private property rights is a value shared by most voters in Wisconsin. And that the legislation intended to better protect those rights enjoys broad-based public support.
I‚Äôve had the pleasure of traveling extensively over the past several months, engaging in the ceremonious rituals of local board installations. These annual ordinations are a wonderful tradition in our organization, inaugurating new board leaders while thanking those whose service is concluding. Like our Code of Ethics, the oath of office that I administer at these gatherings further demonstrates our organizational support of private property rights. The oath asks incoming officers commit to ‚Äúthe pursuit and protection of the free enterprise system and the right to own, use and enjoy real property.‚ÄĚ Every new leader of our organization thus commits to supporting this property rights crusade.¬†

If you need more attestation to our organization‚Äôs property rights devotion, just go back to our Code of Ethics and read the second sentence, which states poignantly that property ‚Äúupon its wise utilization and widely allocated ownership depend the survival and growth of free institutions and of our civilization.‚ÄĚ

*Telephone survey conducted by American Strategies of Washington, D.C., from July 27-31, 2017, with a sample size of 600 Wisconsin voters and an overall margin of error of +/- 4%.

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