Monday, June 22, 2009

What Can One Do?

In her essay "What Can One Do?" Ayn Rand writes:

Speak on any scale open to you, large or small--to your friends, your associates, your professional organizations, or any legitimate public forum. You can never tell when your words will reach the right mind at the right time.

A friend--Joe Reed--recently demonstrated this in a simple, but effective way. His city, a suburb of Houston, has zoning. Home owners in his neighborhood were protesting a variance request by a nearby property owner. Joe wrote the following letter to a member of the Planning and Zoning Commission:

I am a homeowner in the Oak Creek subdivision. It has come to my attention
that the owner of a piece of commercial property adjacent to my neighborhood,
Mr. Tim Wood, is requesting a zoning variance (case number BP09-01R).

The purpose of the city government and its various departments should be
the protection of property rights. Based on the information I have received on
the matter, I believe the Planning and Zoning Commission is failing to perform
this function. I believe that the property rights of Mr. Wood are being
violated. Here's why:

(1) Although I was not in attendance at the first hearing, I was told that
the planning board received over 30 emails from homeowners in my subdivision,
and that between 10-15 homeowners spoke to the commissioners at the meeting.
According to the map I've seen, the property in question backs up to only two or
three houses at the front of the Oak Creek subdivision. Assuming their argument
was that they did not want to look over their back fence and see a warehouse
(which I've been told is what Mr. Wood is building), I think it is wrong to
allow homeowners who would not be directly affected to have a voice in the
matter. For example, I received a flyer on my door requesting support against Mr.
Wood's plans (in addition to several emails), even though I live several blocks
away from the property. Why should I (and the other 150 or so homeowners in the
neighborhood) be able to keep Mr. Wood from building on his own land, when I
wouldn't even be able to see what he's built? The opinions of those who are not
even directly impacted by the variance request should be thrown out as
irrelevant- no matter how many there are. The basic principle in question is
property rights, and these should not be up for a vote.

(2) As for the two or three homeowners whose property is directly adjacent
to the property in question, they should not be able to dictate what Mr. Wood
can and cannot build on his own land, either. There is no inalienable right to
an unobstructed view from one's back door. They built houses at the edge of the
neighborhood, next door to (at the time) undeveloped land. They cannot demand
that the land remain untouched forever more. If they want to control what
happens on the adjacent property, then they could/should purchase it. The true
meaning of property rights is the right to use your own property as you see fit,
and not to dictate to others how they should be allowed to use theirs.

(3) I learned (independently of the flyer and emails I received) that there is a
potential issue with sewage service for the property in question. Apparently the
property does not currently have access to a sewage system. As I understand the
situation, this means that Mr. Wood would need to either build an on-site septic
system, or tie into a nearby sewage system (i.e., Oak Creek's). I've been told
that these options are unacceptable to the various parties.

I have heard that some types of septic systems cause odors to the
surrounding area that some find offensive. However, at this time, that is merely
a potential problem, since no such system has yet been built on the property.
Assuming that Mr. Wood builds such a system, and that it turns out to be
unacceptable to the nearby neighbors, then there are existing nuisance laws on
the books that can be used to deal with the situation if/when it actually
exists. The point is that there must exist an actual- not a potential- nuisance
before action can/should be taken. To block Mr. Wood's plans at this time, based
only on the potential for some future problem is just morally wrong. He should
be perfectly free to build whatever type of septic system he wants to (and can
afford). If he chooses now to build a system that will create a nuisance later,
then he should be prepared to deal with nuisance law violations later- when they
actually occur. If the costs of dealing with the problem later turn out to be
unacceptable at that time, then too bad for him- let the fines begin! In any
case, he should have the freedom to make those choices, and deal with the
consequences. He should not have to beg for permission from the Commission, or
the nearby homeowners, ahead of time.

As for the other option (tying into Oak Creek's sewage line), that should
be dealt with by direct negotiations between the property owner and Oak Creek
(or whatever the name of the party that represents the actual owner of the
land), independently of any zoning commission. Oak Creek owns the land through
which the other property owner wants access (to tie into the sewage system). If
Oak Creek determines that it does not want to provide access, then the other
property owner is out of luck. If the other property owner cannot convince Oak
Creek to allow access, then he must find another solution. If he cannot find
another alternative solution, then again, too bad for him. He has no right to
demand access, just as Oak Creek has no right to keep him from trying. If no
agreement between the parties can be reached, so be it. One party or the other
may walk away empty-handed, but no property rights have been violated in doing

Note that I am not in any way associated with Mr. Wood, and have in fact
never met or had any contact with him. My arguments are based strictly on the
moral premise that property rights are to be protected, not violated, by the
government, and that they should never be determined by popular vote. The
property owner has the moral right to use his property as he sees fit.

The Commission should fulfill its obligation to uphold the rights of
property owners, and should therefore grant the request to Mr. Wood.

I am happy to report that Mr. Wood's variance was granted. I suspect that Joe's letter had more impact than we will ever know. As he told me prior to sending the letter, he was greatly outnumbered by his neighbors. Yet, despite the mass of people opposed to the variance, one rational, principled voice carried the day. Congratulations Joe.


z said...

That's great!

Anonymous said...


Brian Phillips said...

It truly is worth celebrating when the good guys win.

Joshua Sanders said...

That's a great letter and story delivered with ration and complete reason behind the arguement. Well done!