The Urban Lawyer

It's Not "Just" Zoning: Environmental Justice and Land Use

by Benjamin F. Wilson

Benjamin F. Wilson is managing principal of Beveridge & Diamond, P.C, in Washington, D.C. He has been lead counsel in many complex environmental litigation and regulatory matters for major consumer products corporations, retailers, oil and gas companies, municipalities, and developers. He serves as the court-appointed monitor for the Duke Energy coal ash spill remediation project and previously served as lead counsel at the largest chromium site in the United States. This article was drafted as part of a panel discussion on issues of disparity in land use at the 31st Annual Land Use Institute in February 2017.


ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE ISSUES RECEIVE NATIONAL ATTENTION on a regular basis. Today, many law schools have entire courses and even environmental law clinics dedicated to environmental justice, and academics, practitioners, and government agencies devote resources and attention to addressing the issue. Several law schools, including Vermont Law School, Pace University School of Law, and Lewis and Clark Law School, focus primarily, if not exclusively, on environmental law. Yet, inequitable distribution of environmental harms and benefits persists. Indeed, in recent years we have laid witness to some of the greatest environmental justice disasters of our time, such as the Flint, Michigan, drinking water crisis.

As the distinguished Professor Patricia Salkin has stated, “environmental justice goes to the core of traditional land use decisions, such as: choosing sites for locally unwanted land uses … the process for deciding where to site these unwanted land uses, including the location and time of public hearings … and sociological factors, including which groups hold the political power inherent in land use decisions.”1 We need lawyers who are trained to identify environmental justice issues and who are willing to address environmental justice issues in the context of interpreting existing environmental and land use laws and to work with community leaders and advocates. Equally pressing is the need for attorneys working for the government, corporate America, and developers, who see environmental justice challenges as an opportunity to open a dialogue with poor communities and communities of color, and to solve a number of problems on both sides of the conversation.

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