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December 08, 2016
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Competing values

There are a number of ways to look at the disagreement in Lackawaxen Township, PA between Kittatinny Canoes owner David Jones, who purchased land on the banks of the Lackawaxen River to operate a boat launch business, and a variety of citizens and stakeholder organizations, including the Lackawaxen River Conservancy, that fear the consequences of a large livery business there. Lackawaxen township officials find themselves caught in the middle.

How shall we view this dispute?

On one hand, our society values a property owner’s rights to use his land as he chooses so long as it does not harm the neighbors’ rights to enjoy their property. On the other hand, we value the rights of the public, and Pennsylvania’s constitution promises the people “a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment.” It further establishes the Commonwealth as trustee of these resources to “conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people.” At face value, the law would appear to protect both sides.

So one way to view the matter is through the eyes of the law. Indeed, Jones has stated that the law is on his side, so the matter may well end up in the courts. There, the historic use of this property matters a lot and not only going back to the 1970s when former owner Euell Threshman used it as a boat launch. Other history, going back to the days of William Penn’s land grant charter and to the founding of the Commonwealth, matters, too. In Pennsylvania, the courts consider river disputes by determining their use in the 18th and 19th centuries to see if a river was a highway for commerce and transport to carry goods to market.

Additionally, the issue looks different through the eyes of a fisherman. In Pennsylvania, the Commonwealth owns all submerged land under public bodies of water below their low-water mark, while the property owner owns everything above the high-water mark. The area in between is covered by an easement allowing anyone to fish along the banks (though a fisherman may not cross private property to get there).

There are also the neighbors, of course, who do not want to see their rural peace and quiet disrupted by an active, potentially popular business.

Finally, there are the environmentalists, who are leery to rely on people to do the right thing voluntarily to protect precious natural resources. In “The Tragedy of the Commons,” a classic 1968 essay that helped lay the groundwork for the environmental movement, ecologist Garrett Hardin theorizes that people acting independently in furtherance of their own self interests are unlikely to show restraint for how they use the commons, i.e. lands held in common for all to use. Even as the commons begin to degrade through overuse, Hardin argues, it is human nature to exploit the commons, which eventually, tragically will be destroyed.

So here is the dilemma: the Lackawaxen River is a public resource that is free and open to all to use without limit, including Jones. Any number of outdoor enthusiasts may launch their boats on the river; is Jones different because he wishes to launch many boats? Surely he values the river and its beauty as much as anyone and one assumes his own self-interest is in preserving and protecting it.

But there are other questions, too. Is the Lackawaxen an inexhaustible resource? Will the proliferation of many more boats put its natural beauty at risk and disturb the very peace and quiet that draws all kinds of people to enjoy it? What will it take to have a sustainable river not only for now, but also for future generations?

In the end, weighing competing values is always difficult. People tend to take sides and dig in based on strongly held, preconceived ideas. But it is possible to pursue a process that seeks mutually satisfactory solutions through open discussion, where people come to the table with an open mind and willingness to listen.

In the case of the old Threshman property, can environmentalists, neighbors, interested fishermen, other stakeholders and Jones hold a civil conversation seeking an end solution that all of them surely want, namely preserving the natural beauty of the Lackawaxen River? Or does everybody just want to fight about it?

We encourage the conversation.