LAND, n. A part of the earth’s surface, considered as property. The theory that land is property subject to private ownership and control is the foundation of modern society. Carried to its logical conclusion, it means that some have the right to prevent others from living.

– The Devil’s Dictionary, 1911

Notions of Land Tenure

“To the majority of people in the dominant societies, land is viewed as a commodity, to be bought and sold for profit, fenced in, paved over, dug up. Land is a means to an end, a thing to be exploited.”  – World Council of Churches’ Program on Indigenous Rights

“The land shall not be sold forever; for the land is Mine; for ye are strangers and sojourners with Me.” – GOD (in Leviticus XXV)

The Hebrew Torah contains three principles of just stewardship of land:

  1. there must be an initial just distribution of land
  2. recognizing that over time there will be a tendency for land to concentrate in the hands of the few, a restoring force must be put in place to return land to its original, just distribution.
  3. the fundamental needs of the poor must overrule other rights and rules

Scouts were sent out to survey the land and to define parcels of equal agricultural potential.

The parcels were then assigned by a casting of lots. To this day, a parcel of land is called a “lot”.

“This we know: The earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the earth. All things are connected. Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.” – Chief Seattle

“Land belongs to a vast family of which many are dead, few are living and countless members are still unborn.” – Nigerian tribal saying

“The land is the basis of our culture and the basis of our existence. The land is not ours to sell, it is only ours to honor, respect and protect for our children and our children’s children. – World Council on Indigenous People

Land in the Enlightenment Tradition and the American Revolution of Values

“God gave the world in common to all mankind.” – John Locke

“The earth is given as a common stock for man to labor and live on.” – Thomas Jefferson

“There are two kinds of property. Firstly, natural property, or that which comes to us from the Creator of the universe – such as the earth, air, water. Secondly, artificial or acquired property – the invention of men. In the natural property all individuals have legitimate birthrights. Men did not make the earth. It is the value of the improvement only, and not the earth itself, that is individual property.” – Thomas Paine

“Solving the land question means the solving of all social questions. Possession of land by people who do not use it is immoral.” – Leo Tolstoy

“The land, the earth God gave man for his home, sustenance, and support, should never be the possession of any man, corporation, society, or unfriendly government, any more than the air or water.” – Abraham Lincoln

Land in the Conservation Movement

“We abuse the land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” – Aldo Leopold

“Land Conservation, like the soil under our feet, must be the bridge between home, good work, meaningful lives, and a hopeful future.” – Will Rogers, The Trust for Public Lands

“If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are.” – Wendell Berry

So, where are we?

What is this American dream?

What is so compelling about owning a piece of land?

Two men, Ralph Borsodi and Bob Swann, began a quest to answer the question and question the answer.

Ralph Borsodi (1886-1977): 1920s back-to-the-lander, visionary decentralist and economic theorist. He was said to solve problems 20 years before others recognized them, adopted voluntary simplicity and homestead ethics, suggested use of renewable resources, developed an inflation-free currency, established the School for Living in 1934, influenced Scott and Helen Nearing and J. I. Rodale, published Seventeen Universal Problems of Man & Society  in 1968.

In that literally ground-breaking book, Borsodi distinguished between private property that can be legitimately owned and traded (anything made from nature by one’s own labor) and public trustery that can only be stewarded and equitably allocated (land and its resources).

Borsodi was a member of the Georgist Single-Tax Party and the editor of its newspaper. Henry George (1839-1897) wrote Progress and Poverty  in 1879, which sold over 3 million copies and was the second most read book in America after the bible. “We must make land common property,” he wrote. Henry George proposed that the “rent of land should be paid to the community, satisfying the equal rights of all other members of the community without disturbing individual title to land, fixity of tenure and undisturbed possession.”

Drafted by the United Labor Party to run for Mayor of New York in 1886, George lost but came in ahead of Theodore Roosevelt. He traveled and lectured extensively around the world, and wrote an “open letter” in response to Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum. Another influential book of his, Protection or Free Trade, was read in its entirety into the US Congressional Record.

American philosopher, psychologist and educational reformer John Dewey said “it would require less then the fingers of two hands to enumerate those who, from Plato down, rank with Henry George among the world’s social philosophers.” And yet, today, hardly a living American has even heard this name, let along read his books.

“Men like Henry George are rare, unfortunately.  One cannot imagine a more beautiful combination of intellectual keenness, artistic form, and fervent love of justice.” – Albert Einstein

Gone but not forgotten

Henry George’s ideas articulated in Progress and Poverty influenced such diverse figures as Leo Tolstoy, Clarence Darrow, Henry Ford, Albert Einstein, Sun Yat-sen, Elizabeth Magie, Frank Lloyd Wright, Aldous Huxley, William F. Buckley, Jr., Ralph Nader, Joseph Stiglitz and Mumia Abu-Jamal.


Henry George articulated what was accepted by many American thinkers:

  • there can be only conditional private ownership of land but not absolute private ownership of land or natural resources
  • land transactions are, in actuality, transactions of a “bundle of rights”
  • such rights must be allocated according to the moral basis of ownership
  • society must grant secure land tenure, refuse to confiscate the products of labor, and “not sell the land forever”

In fact, the word “private” as in “private property” derives from the Latin privare, meaning to steal.

Died in the wool libertarians, such as those who founded the Ludwig von Mises Institute and the Austrian School of Economics, considered municipal zoning to be a form of public theft of private property rights. But the first US zoning regulations, were adopted in New York City in 1916 as a reaction to construction of The Equitable Building (which still stands at 120 Broadway). The building towered over the neighboring residences, completely covering all available land area within the property boundary, blocking windows of neighboring buildings and diminishing the availability of sunshine for the people in the affected area. In upholding the legality of zoning, the US Supreme Court stated: “A community may enact reasonable laws to keep the pig out of the parlor, even if pigs may not be prohibited from the entire community.”

Horns of a Dilemma?

According to Thomas Jefferson, “…rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add ‘within the limits of the law’, because law is often but the tyrant’s will, and always so when it violates the rights of the individual.“

This uniquely American dilemma – personal rights vs. collective responsibility – was balanced by Henry George’s distinction between personal use rights and common ownership.

Ralph Borsodi was also influenced by Ghandi’s successors, Vinoba Bhave and J. P. Narayan. Vinoba Bhave created the Boodan (land gift) and Gramdan (village gift ) movements for individual and collectively-controlled land redistribution in India following independence. Borsodi  spoke with J. P. Narayan about creating a Rural Rennaissance in the third world. The proposal was to create a novel method of offering low-cost credit to small farmers – an idea which presaged the Grameen Bank micro-credit program for which Mohammed Yunus recently received the Nobel Prize.

Bob Swann (1918-2003): conscientious objector, peace & civil rights activist, visionary localist and an activist with the Community for Nonviolent Action, met J. P. Narayan in London in 1959 where both went to organize a nonviolent Peace Brigade. Swann was re-introduced to him and to Borsodi by fellow conscientious objector and publisher Porter Sargent (whose blind daughter, Nelia, was an inspirational friend and colleague of mine in the non-violence movement) in 1967. Borsodi and Swann joined their visions.

Together, these two visionaries and activists created the Community Land Trust (CLT), which they built upon a foundation of the Native American ideal of stewardship, Henry George’s idea of private use balanced by common ownership, the Ghandian Gramdan village trusteeship model, and the Israeli Kibbutz land lease template.

Security, Equity & Legacy

Borsodi and Swann distilled the three essential ingredients of the American Dream of land ownership: security, equity and legacy. The CLT was designed as an edifice that offers security through 99-year renewable land leases, equity because all improvements and their monetary value are privately owned, and legacy because those improvements and the land lease are inheritable. The one piece of the dream they left out, because it was neither necessary nor just and has contributed to the current nightmare, was the ability to profit from land or improvements upon resale and hence make them less affordable with each transaction.

The first realization of the CLT model was New Communities, a 5,000 acre former plantation near Albany GA which emerged from the 1963 Quebec to Guantanamo walk with Albany Movement leader Slater King (no relation to MLK Jr.) and a trip to Israel to see Georgist principles in action. The founders raised the $1,000,000 purchase price to buy the land for small and large-scale farming and small industry, and it survived 20 years and several tragedies as the largest black-owned property in the US.

Borsodi went on to create his final vision: educational and financial institutions for supporting village land trusts and small farmers in the form of the International Independence Institute and the International Foundation for Independence. But first Borsodi and Swann created the Institute for Community Economics in 1973 to create an American Gramdan movement and continue fundraising using a “positive screen” for socially-responsible investment (as opposed to the negative screen that most such funds employed).

As these two social architects manifested it, the CLT is a not-for-profit organization with open membership, democratically run, with the mission to acquire and hold land in perpetuity to provide permanently affordable access to land for housing, farming, small business and civic projects. The CLT acquires land by purchase, gift, or (tax deductible) bargain sale and develops a land-use plan that fosters a healthy ecosystem and appropriate social uses, and leases land to suitable lessees. The land use plan may include homesteads, open space, recreational space, managed woodlots,  wildlife preserve, secure farmland, affordable housing, affordable office space, and space for cottage industry.

The CLT is a flexible structure that’s compatible with single family home ownership, multi-family housing, rental housing, housing coops, mobile home parks, condominiums, lease-to-own arrangements, conventional mortgages, in-house equity lending or down-payment assistance, public subsidy programs, and public/private partnerships.

The leaseholder owns the buildings and agricultural improvements but not the land. In legal terminology, this is know as “usufruct rights” –  literally “use of the fruits”. One who possesses usufruct rights may reap all the benefits with the condition that s/he must care for the land so that it is not harmed.

Upon resale to another suitable lessee, leaseholders can recover only the current replacement cost of their buildings and improvements, or their actual investment increased by an inflation factor and decreased for depreciation by wear and tear, or with a share of market appreciation with the remainder staying with the community. The lease fee is based on the use-value of the land, or actual costs including mortgage payments, land taxes, common land maintenance and necessary infrastructure improvements.

The individual and social benefits of the CLT are these:

  • access costs are based on property not trustery
  • land value is excluded from purchase price of housing and other improvements
  • land value is retained by the community
  • land is removed from the speculative market
  • dampens artificial land value appreciation
  • community investment is retained by community
  • decommodifies land and housing
  • helps reverse gentrification and displacement
  • builds commitment to place
  • strengthens community relationships and viability

As a democratic institution, the CLT Trustees are composed of lessees (resident members), other (non-resident) members, and broader community representatives so that all stakeholders have a voice and no stakeholder group has majority control. The CLT is similar to the “old world” notion of the commons – community land held in common and for the common good.

Bob Swann went on to found the E. F. Schumacher Society in Great Barrington MA, applying the values of human-scale communities and respect for the natural environment to economic issues to foster community land trusts, local (alternative or complementary) currencies, and micro credit.

Chuck Matthei (1948-2002), who was on the Board of the Institute for Community Economics (ICE) when it was based in Boston, and who lived at the Community for Non-violent Action (CNVA) in Voluntown CT (a CLT) with Bob and Marj Swann, took over the helm of ICE as executive director from 1980 to 1990, moved it into two large adjacent houses in Greenfield MA and staffed it with volunteers who received only room, board, and health insurance. Matthei was a Vietnam War draft resister, Peacemaker, Catholic Worker, involved in civil rights, anti-war, and peace & disarmament movements, and had a lifelong commitment to non-violence, tax resistance, and voluntary poverty.

I had met Chuck Matthei when we both worked with the Clamshell Alliance on the seacoast of NH, the world’s first grass-roots anti-nuclear power coalition and the one which seeded and inspired America’s largest non-violence movement, training tens of thousands of non-violent activists in collective resistance, positive action and consensus-based decision-making. I helped Chuck find the houses and was recruited to be one of those first staff people, with my task to create a Community Construction Assistance Program to help urban and rural community groups to create or renovate affordable housing and train local community members to take over on their own.

Chuck Matthei, the most committed social-change activist I had known, who had helped guide me through my first non-cooperation arrest and air fast for conscientious resistance (against the launching of the first Trident nuclear submarine in Groton CT in 1979), had himself been mentored by the likes of Dorothy Day (founder of the Catholic Worker), Ernest & Marion Bromley (founders of Peacemakers and life-long tax resisters), Wally Nelson (WWII CO and first national field organizer for CORE), and Rev. Maurice McCrackin (Cincinnati Presbyterian minister who was defrocked for refusing to testify to the McCarthy witch hunt hearings).

After leaving ICE in good hands, Chuck returned to CNVA and established the Equity Trust in 1991, which focused on alternative models of land tenure and economic development, providing technical and financial assistance to projects all across the United States and in Central America and Kenya, at the old Voluntown farm where he died of cancer in 2002 at age 54 surrounded by those he had inspired in his lifetime.

In an article titled “Economics As If Values Mattered” (Sojourners Magazine, 1993), Chuck Matthei wrote:

Economics is in essence a very personal and fundamentally moral discipline. It is nothing short of the web of our material relationships with one another and with the natural environment. These relationships physically manifest both our social and spiritual values. Our language expresses this duality. “Values” are both moral principles and economic measures. “Equity” is both a financial interest in property and fairness or justice. The root of “property” is also the root of “propriety”. Many of the economic problems confronting us can be understood as the result of neglected or broken relationships.

Land is the first leg of the economic triangle. It is the source of shelter, nourishment, and raw materials for production – and the common ground on which all social and economic activity takes place. The legal conception of property as a “bundle of rights” has an economic corollary. Property value is a “bundle of values”. It comes from many sources both individual and communal. And this realization may hold a key to solving our land and housing problems. When we fail to measure the social contribution then we also fail to utilize the social increment in value, the “commonwealth”, for the common good.

Property can never be wholly private or wholly public, but must be seen as a partnership between the individual and the community. In this partnership, individuals have a legitimate economic interest, the community has a legitimate interest, and the original essential value of the land may be considered to be held in trust for the good of all.

Land reform in the United States will not take the same forms as in the Third World, but land reform is what we need. It should not be seen as a confiscatory program but rather, one that reflects renewed respect for one another and a new regard for equity in the economic relationship between individuals and communities.

Redistribution of Land or Wealth?

The Communist “solution” was state ownership of land and resources, which is collective but not common ownership and benefited mostly the state.

The Socialist “solution” is sometimes forced redistribution of land, but any forced “solution” creates an equal and opposite backlash.

Henry George saw that it was not ownership or use rights which created the disparity, but rather the maldistribution of income (unearned increment) that resulted. His “solution” was for local government to collect a use tax  (economic rent) based on the economic (not market) value of the land or natural resource and either use it for public benefit (in lieu of other taxes, particularly income taxes which he considered confiscatory) or distribute it equally to all citizens.

Since land is the primary source of the commonwealth, it is not necessary that each person have an equal amount of land, but that each person is entitled to a fair share of the return on land and its resources and to 100% of the value of their individual labor.

Today’s CLT Movement

ICE, now based in urban and racially-mixed Springfield MA, offers technical assistance to urban and rural CLTs, housing coops, trailer park coops, and community development projects, financial assistance through a Revolving Loan Fund comprised of gifts, loans and grants and by leveraging local moneys from banks, religious groups and others. Under Matthei’s leadership, ICE also built the foundation for the socially-responsible investment movement, created the first municipal CLT (in Burlington VT), opened up federal mortgage lending programs to the CLT model and turned a creative idea into a national movement.

Now with a large professional staff in Springfield MA, ICE has helped establish 118 CLTs in 31 states and DC, with the help of more than 800 individual and institutional investors has placed more than $44 million with non-profits, provides technical assistance to 40-50 CLTs annually, and has created the National CLT Network for mutual support.

Two Inspired Examples

Among the early prominent examples of authentic community-based land reform are the Covenant Community Land Trust of Orland ME and the Woodland Community Land Trust in Roses Creek Hollow, Clairfield TN.

Covenant at HOME

Covenant CLT was a project of Homeworkers Organized for More Employment (HOME), begun in 1970 as a broad-based community self-development program created by “sister” Lucy Poulin as her mission work as a novitiate in the order of the Discalced Carmelites. She is known as small “s” sister because she followed God’s calling by staying among the poor of Hancock County ME after her Mother Superior called her back to the cloister.

At the headwaters of the Penobscott Bay, not far from where the Nearings made their last homestead, Lucy built an entire alternative economic development and social service network to care for the otherwise marginalized people in the second poorest county in a state which was an effective third world colony much like Appalachia – rich with natural resources, but owned and exploited by out-of-state corporate interests.

Begun as a homeworkers’ cooperative, for women who scratched a living by piecework sewing  for corporate masters, to market their wares directly to the public and receive fair value (they earned much less than minimum wage), HOME quickly grew to include a popular store, craft training workshops, an alternative school, an inter-denominational community chapel, a food coop, a CLT house-building program, family shelters, full-time social worker assistance, a community store with lunch counter and post office, a local Heifer Project with veterinarian assistance, and a Fjord horse breeding and training center.

I was a volunteer at HOME for a wonderful year, living a mile into the woods with sister Lucy, three other nuns and a recluse Oblate priest, celebrating a home-made sacrament of bread and wine each morning together before beginning our work. We logged with horses to pay the land taxes, carried our water a quarter mile in buckets and scratched our gardens out of the rocky Maine soil.

This inspired alternative, land-based community self-development cooperative has offered jobs, food, temporary shelter, education and home ownership to the rural poor for more than 30 years. Located on 23 acres of land, the co-op includes a free health clinic, a soup kitchen, a food bank, five homeless shelters, a learning center with daycare, literacy and GED tutoring, alternative high school and college-level programs, and job and craft training including pottery, leather and weaving studios, a greenhouse and a farmer’s market, a sawmill and a shingle mill, and a service that delivers free firewood to the elderly.

Their Covenant CLT is a community land trust of 700 acres. By 1998, construction had been completed on 30 homes and had begun on 20 more. Each year, as many as 750 volunteers help H.O.M.E. build houses, provide health services, chop firewood and do repairs. And every year, more than 8,500 people receive employment or other services from the H.O.M.E. community. In addition, sister Lucy has organized a cultural exchange between Orland and the Guatemalan town of San Juan Comalapa Chimaltenango. Each year, Lucy travels to Guatemala with a group from the U.S. who contribute a little money and a lot of hard work to support a community house, a weaving co-op, and a medical clinic in this sister community.

In 1994, the sate of Maine gave H.O.M.E. a large land grant for low-income housing throughout the state. Lucy created a half dozen community land trusts through which cooperative houses and communities can be built.

“It’s a privilege to work with good people and to do good work. There is nothing to prevent me from living my conscience other than myself.” – Lucy Poulin, 1993





Woodland of Appalachia

The Woodland Community Land Trust was begun by diosesan rural outreach worker, Sister Marie Cirillo, in 1977, as an effort to rebuild the rural life of the Cumberland Mountain region of northeast Tennessee – another region that was an economic colony of corporate America. She had previously started the area’s first cooperative business enterprise – a pallet factory.

“This land provides the landless poor living in the coal mining area with 400 acres as ‘the land of opportunity’ to redevelop their community.” – Sister Marie Cirillo

Woodland Vision Statement: The founders saw the community land trust as a way to create an alternative to migration (the flight from this rural place to some urban place) and an opportunity for people who once left the community to come home. We would provide the community a system for acquiring land to meet public and private needs and thus do our part to rebuild this community in a life fulfilling way.

The vision was to build houses, develop a local economy, engage in hands on education and exchanges, and revere the land as a gift to humans and other life forms. This vision manifested into 17 homes, small farms and small businesses, the Woodland Community Development Corporation, and the Clearfork Community Institute educational center.


I lived with Sister Marie for four and a half months, supervising and training a local crew in the construction of the first two prototype homes on the land trust: a locally-designed “Warm and Dry” double-wall superinsulated 790 square feet 3-bedroom home and a panelized home designed by the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Mildred Day, Allene Hatfield & Harold Osborne

The Federation of Appalachian Housing Enterprises, of which this was one, constructed 5,800 new affordable homes and renovated and preserved 33,800 existing dwellings.In addition, or rather as a complement to, the CLT, Sister Marie started the Woodland Community Development Program which offers peer lending and individual development accounts (IDA). Peer Lending gives a small group the opportunity to learn from one another and to encourage one another as they take loans to start their small businesses. The program, when completed, qualifies people for bank loans. An IDA is a special savings account program that engages a small group to start saving money to develop personal assets that are critical for moving out of poverty. The savings account is matched by the development corporation once the person is ready to withdraw their savings to invest in one of the critical assets.

Sustainability – Justice & Equity

The Earth Charter states: “We stand at a critical moment in Earth’s history.” The Earth Charter principles deemed necessary to traverse this critical moment include:

  • respect and care for the community of life
  • ecological integrity
  • social and economic justice
  • democracy, nonviolence, and peace

On a finite planet, sustainability and equity are inseparably linked. The CLT model and the many diverse enterprises that complement it in these two inspired and inspiring examples of alternative social and economic development are manifestations of an authentically sustainable culture of humanity on a living earth. They should serve as guides for those who strive toward a truly peaceful, just and equitable world.


Robert Riversong is a life-long non-violent activist and organizer, a perennial volunteer, a designer and builder of sustainable homes, an experiential educator, a minister of the Universal Life Church, a rites-of-passage facilitator, a philosopher, and a spiritual midwife for the rebirth of a new era of humanity within the sacred Web-of-Life.


 by Robert Riversong: may be reproduced only with attribution for non-commercial purposes and a link to this page


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