24 September 2007

Property Rights and Wrongs

A quick addendum and clarification about yesterday's post concerning out-of-control real estate development going on in Seattle:

I am a big believer in property rights. One thing we like about living so far out in the country is that there are very few restrictions on what we can do with our land or to our house; we've never even had to get a permit for any of the extensive remodeling we've had done, or for the office building we had put up on the property.

Furthermore, my wife worked for some time as a lawyer at a public interest law organization that defended property owners against unjust eminent domain takings and regulatory injunctions that effectively rendered property useless. ("Sorry, we've now classified your 20 acres of prime view property as a wetland, and we've found an endangered species of rat living under one of the trees you want to cut down; you can't build your dream house on it.") We know very well the difficulties that government regulators can cause property owners.

I can therefore understand very well the position of someone who owns a large forested parcel of land, has watched the value of that land skyrocket, and finally sells that parcel to a developer. That's his land, and his right, and there are lots of people back in my old neighborhood who seem to be eagerly exercising those rights. And if I was sitting on one of those parcels, and my kids were going off to college or I was preparing to retire, I'd be sorely tempted to cash it all in and get out of town myself.

But here's the rub: communities also have rights. This is something we've run into as we've looked for houses in Michigan --- there are zoning laws which restrict what a person can do with his property or what he can have on it. Sometimes, these are tough on small farmers; we've found a number of otherwise perfect houses, on 5+ acres, whose zoning forbids livestock. That's a frustrating dealbreaker for us, but understandable. For some people, a neighbor with goats and chickens would be a real nuisance. If enough people in the community agree, they ought to have the right to exclude people like us from that community --- just as my community ought to have the right to prevent an ethanol plant or water treatment facility from being constructed across the street.

My question is: Why should a new subdivision, that rips out and replaces the 10-20 acres of heavy woods bordering a long-established neighborhood, be viewed any differently? As a thought experiment: imagine someone wanted to take the same parcel of land and establish an organic goat dairy on it. Want to place a bet on which (the diary or the subdivision) would engender more community organizing and opposition?

What I'm questioning is why so many communities have become blinded to values other than "growth growth growth" and "maximum monetary profit." Although there are certainly local building codes, and folks must get permits for turning a forest into a subdivision, no one in suburban Seattle seems sufficiently motivated (or organized) to try to slow the developers down or insist that new home developments be constructed in a "New Urbanism" style that maximizes walkability and possibilities for interaction with neighbors. And I'm not even coming at this from an environmental angle; the deforestation is bad enough in itself, but what's possibly even worse is the degradation of community character --- and loss altogether of a sense of community by the constant construction of these massive swaths of tract homes.

Others have written much more eloquently on this subject; I guess I'm trying to say that this weekend in Seattle I had my own first-hand epiphany as to the contrast between the kind of small community we now live in (and the close-knit neighborhood in which I grew up) and the kinds of "communities" that are rapidly taking their place.

1 comment:

Brian said...

TYF:

Here is the short answer. What you are witnessing, in my humble opinion, is the very same people that cause high taxes and over regulation in one area run to another in order to escape what they created, and recreate a new imaginary world free of the intentional consequences of what they left. (I say intentional over the public administration “scientists” that would say unintentional. Sadly these folks believe that when their bad policies go astray they are somehow unintentional. But let’s face the truth; what these socialists do is very intentional.)

See there would be no need for folks to leave where they live if they believed they weren’t so confined by laws and taxes. Even though these people are not heading to the same place you and I live, they still want to be free of the filth and crime, poor education, out of control government spending and the like. The difference is that you buy land to cultivate; some land developer buys it to build tons of houses and apartments for those that have no wish to work with their hands.

I guarantee you, if the big government types, who want to control every aspect of your life, aka Urban Planners, were put in check, and communities had less planning, taxes, and regulations, and more freedoms we would see less development away from the cities.