Monday, December 14, 2009

Preserving the City's Authority

Last week the Houston city council rejected an appeal by Buckhead Development to construct its project at 1717 Bissonnet (the Ashby High Rise) as originally planned.

In August, after nearly two years of pandering to home owners near the proposed project, city officials approved an amended plan for the project. But in a display of courage and integrity that is rare among businessmen today, Buckhead's principals refused to accept that Pyrrhic victory and demanded that the city recognize their right to use their property as they choose. (They probably didn't state it quite like that, but that is the essence of their actions.)

The Chronicle report on city council's latest action inadvertently captures the essence of the issue:
Councilwoman Anne Clutterbuck, whose district includes the site and who has joined neighbors in opposing the project, said rejecting the appeal was important to preserve the city's authority to impose reasonable regulations to prevent new developments from having adverse effects such as extreme traffic congestion. [emphasis added]
The entire controversy over Ashby comes down to the city's authority. This isn't and hasn't been about "protecting neighborhoods" or traffic, despite the proclamations of Clutterbuck and her constituents. This is and has been about power--political power. This is and has been about using coercion to impose the views and values of some individuals on other individuals.

Clutterbuck implies that it is "reasonable" to declare the Ashby project illegal. She implies that it is "reasonable" to threaten Buckhead's principals with fines, jail, or both if they do not abide by her dictates. She implies that it is "reasonable" for her to wield a club and demand that others succumb to her mandates, or else.

To be "reasonable" means to use reason, to use the power of persuasion rather than the persuasion of power. Clutterbuck has rejected reason. She has substituted brute force--the coercive power of government--for the voluntary and consensual. The developers must place their plans and their future in Clutterbuck's hands, or else.

Politically, reason allows each individual to live according to his own judgment, so long as he respects the mutual rights of others. Clutterbuck has rejected this fundamental moral right, and instead demands that her judgment supersede that of Buckhead, or else.

If you think this melodramatic, consider what has actually occurred. Two men decided that 1717 Bissonnet was a good location for a multi-use high rise. They followed the arbitrary rules that were in place at the time, only to be rebuked by city officials because a noisy gang of politically connected home owners did not like their decisions. They did not lie to anyone about their intentions. They did not rape, rob, or pillage, nor did they threaten to do so. They purchased the property legally, and sought to use it under the legal guidelines existent at the time.

The city--in response to the hysteria of nearby neighborhoods--sought to stop their plans. Mayor White vowed that he would never allow the project to proceed, implying that the law was irrelevant. He led a movement to draft an ordinance specifically aimed at Ashby, but had to withdraw that egregious power grab when it became clear that it might apply to projects that he favored.

The city then drug out an ordinance that is rarely enforced, and bludgeoned the developers with a series of demands that the project be modified. Finally, after submitting 11 proposals to the city, did the developers receive permission to use their property--a permission which the city has no moral right to grant or withhold.

Throughout this ordeal city officials have made one point abundantly clear to the developers: Your plans, your business, your life is within our control. We have the authority to demand and dictate what you may do and you will obey, or else. Clutterbuck just stated the obvious.

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