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Getting their hands dirty: Nelson Symposium rethinks property laws


By Brandon Breslow and Felicia Holloman
Student writers

That tall glass of water, the place called "home," a morning jog at the local park; these are all affected by property laws. But while many people may not ponder the ground they walk on, a group of experts spent a day examining the impact of laws governing real property.

The University of Florida Levin College of Law's 11th annual Richard E. Nelson Symposium hosted 11 experts in the field of property law to present "Digging up some Dirt (Law): How Recent Developments in Real Property Law Affect Landowners and Local Governments," covering topics of eminent domain, conservation easements, adverse possession and mortgages.

More than 200 students, lawyers and presenters gathered in the UF Hilton Conference Center on Friday, Feb. 10,  to hear presentations by law professors from around the country, including Carol N. Brown, professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law; Alex M. Johnson, Jr., Pierre Bowen Professor of Law, and director of the Center for the Study and Law at the University of Virginia School of Law; Ann Marie Cavazos, director of clinical programs and associate professor at Florida A&M College of Law; and Jessica Owley, associate professor at the University of Buffalo Law School.

"While some skeptics might think that concepts such as adverse possession and easements are relics of the past, the reality is that they have a real impact on people and places in the 21st century," said UF Law Professor Michael Allan Wolf, the Richard E. Nelson Chair in Local Government Law.

Wolf's opening speech "Diamonds in the Rough or Snakes in the Grass?: Evaluating Recent Shifts in American Real Property Law," gave insight into the recent developments in real property law, also known as “dirt law.” Changes that are likely to benefit society were labeled diamonds in the rough and those that will be ultimately harmful were deemed snakes in the grass.

"It struck me that some recent real property developments were positive, others negative and others a mixed bag," Wolf said.

Eminent domain was a hot topic with two presentations discussing the impact of recent eminent domain court cases and legislation. UF Law students Paul J. D'Alessandro Jr. (2L) and Tamara Van Heel (2L) detailed the recent Supreme Court case, Kelo v. City of New London, which affirmed the government's power to transfer property from one private citizen to another through eminent domain.

Cavazos decried the Florida Legislature's reaction to eminent domain law in the wake of Kelo.

"Florida has gone overboard," said Cavazos, a proponent of the eminent domain proceedings that she said make beautiful cities and vibrant economic communities like Orlando and St. Petersburg possible.

Although Florida is the originator of one-fifth of all eminent domain condemnations, the Florida Legislature recently passed laws requiring a three-fifths vote from each house of the Legislature to approve eminent domain proceedings. Cavazos suggested Florida may be undermining local government in its task of bettering society through the acquisition and sale of private property.

Another discussion about property laws affecting Gainesville residents concerned perpetual conservation easements, which are legally enforceable land preservation agreements. Owley discussed the negative impact of perpetual conservation easements, which she said are inflexible solutions to environmental protection problems in a time when climate and biological knowledge is shifting.

"Money is scarce," said Alachua County Attorney David Wagner in support of Owley's assertion that perpetual conservation easements have vastly negative effects. The operating budget for a land trust in Alachua County is around $62,000. When money is scare, the upkeep of easements is difficult to maintain. Destructive elements in Florida’s ecosystems like feral pigs and invasive plant species cannot be properly eradicated.

Ramesh Buch, Program Manager of the Alachua County Forever Land Conservation Program described the perils of purchasing land trusts, such as governments chasing deals and losing sight of what the taxpayers want.

On the other hand, proponents of perpetual conservation easements focus on the positive impact. Buch described popular perpetual easement acquisitions made by Alachua County and their safety from "society's whims."

Two perpetual easements that Gainesville residents enjoy on a daily basis are the Kanapaha Prairie, and Murphree Wellfield and Santa Fe River Tracts. The tracts protect wildlife and provide drinking water for Gainesville and surrounding areas.

The symposium is named in honor of Richard E. Nelson, who served with distinction as Sarasota County attorney for 30 years, and his wife, Jane Nelson — two UF alumni who gave more than $1 million to establish the Richard E. Nelson Chair in Local Government Law, which is responsible for the annual event. Their support of the Levin College of Law's Environmental and Land Use Program has been key to the program's success and national recognition for excellence.

The symposium is co-sponsored by The Florida Bar's Environmental and Land Use Law Section and County and Local Government Section.

"Our goal is to highlight developments of interest to local government attorneys and to bring together legal academics and practitioners to explore mutual areas of interest," Wolf said.