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Finding a practical definition of property rights

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The Alberta Property Rights Advocate Office became operational in December 2012 as a response by the Government of Alberta to landowners’ needs. The office is based in Lethbridge, with a branch office in Edmonton. The property rights advocate, Lee Cutforth, works out of the Lethbridge office, with the assistant advocate, Graham Gilchrist, located in Edmonton.

“In their day-to-day work the office often deals with the question of what is meant by property rights,” says Cutforth. We like to use a practical, working definition of property rights, one that looks at three basic elements: Right of possession, Right of use, and Right of disposition.

“Property rights really have to do with how free an owner is to operate in those three elements with his or her land. The degree to which that ability is compromised or restricted, represents an encroachment on those rights.”

Many may question why freedom to enjoy property a right, instead of a mere privilege. Cutforth notes that in 2002 there was a Court of Appeal decision where Alberta Chief Justice Fraser set out a number of property right principles. One of those principles states that private ownership of land is a fundamental element of the democratic system.

“That is such a basic truth,” said Cutforth. “I have said a number of times that property rights are a measurement of and a means toward a free and prosperous society.”

That is not to say that there can never be any encroachments on a person’s property rights. Gilchrist adds, “There is a balance to these rights, especially for a public purpose, or sometimes to help other property owners use or access their property (such as with mineral rights). The important thing is that encroachment on property rights should be for a limited purpose, and the landowner should be fairly compensated.”

Finding a way to balance these property rights is a part of making good fences, between good neighbours.

The office can be reached at 403-388-1781 or at [email protected]

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