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As Long as We Remember...

September 2, 2011

Not In My Backyard

Patrick Kjellberg

It’s my land and I should be able to do what I want with my land! Right? Well, here the right is wrong.


Carte blanche freedom to what you want to do with your land can violate others rights to the constitutional bone. The old adage sums it up best: the right to swing your fist stops at the tip of my nose.


You may be asking: “So, how is it that my developing my land into a shiny new subdivision is hitting you on the tip of your nose?” Actually it’s not striking your nose, its smashing my face in, and yours, too.


First, let’s take a cursory look at zoning laws and their origin. They were initially set to up to protect the denigration of an individual’s property rights. It also made good practical sense to separate residence from business. Spending a fortune on a brownstone in New York City at the turn of the 21th Century could be made worthless by a neighbor who decided to build a battery factory next door. The dismantling of the vista and contamination of the soil and – most likely – the water source, most definitely rendered the neighboring properties worthless.


Of course, the simplistic argument is raised like an ancient battle flag. “Well, that was then, and this is now. It’s not like I putting in a batter factory, it’s just a few houses.” There is the critical flaw in the argument; it’s really not just a few houses. The social and economic costs compound to a level of devastation which couldn’t be planned and which will cause more havoc.


Still nagging in the back of your mind is the concept “this is my property and it is my right to develop it as I see fit.” Sounds reasonable, yet intellectual forensics reveals something different.


There isn’t even a need for the microscope. All rights have their limitations; even the First Amendment to our Constitution has its limitations. For example, speech that could institute a riot or other lawless action is outside the bounds of free speech.


The rights of a land holder are directly related to the zoning laws. For example, if said property owner owns property Zoned A1, that property has certain agricultural rights, but is limited to the amount of housing and industrial development allowed. If one is lucky enough to own land, they most likely purchased the land with existing property rights.


Now, here is the key, as the system works now. If an owner has property that is A1 and wants to develop the property, he goes before the local zoning juror’s diction, usually the city council or a county board and requests a change in zoning. In doing so the landholder is asking for a new set of economic rights, such as in the case of a developer requesting a change from agricultural to residential.


The new rights don’t come without a price. By developing land usually in the outer reaches of a city, it is recognized by most as urban sprawl. The costs are many and varied, from changes in wetlands which impacts ground water, dependence on the automobile, increasing cost and liability to supply more and more infrastructure, more dependence on foreign oil, increased air pollution, and an overall deterioration of the health of citizens, which has lead to skyrocketing health care costs.


Compiling the cost of this is practically impossible. Yet, for too long, the price associated and charged by counties across America has been zero. Failure to recognize these costs associated with the new rights and not charging for these new rights has been one of the largest transfers of wealth from the general public, all under the cloak of “the right to do what I want with my land.”


So, instead of having the state step in and supersede the counties errors and make the same mistakes, perhaps it might be simpler to apply a cost of development to the developer and the users. A simple fee to the developer and a user tax – say a gas tax.


Now the suburbanites’ are looking for their pitch forks, but unfortunately the pitch forks left with the agricultural zoning.


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