Monday, September 20, 2010

A Victory for Preservationists

Last Friday city council released a final draft of proposed changes to the preservation ordinance. While preservationists are already criticizing the ordinance, at least one group that allegedly defends property rights has praised the proposal. Josh Sanders of Houstonians for Responsible Growth (HRG), a group that the Chronicle describes as representing "the interests of developers" said:
These changes to the ordinance will protect what's truly historic on the ground and not re-create history. The difference from the first draft is night and day.
While the proposed changes might make the ordinance more friendly to developers, it remains a threat to property rights. And HRG's response is the polar opposite of how property rights should be defended.

The right to property is the right to own, use, keep, and dispose of material values. The right to property means that an owner may use his property as he chooses, so long as he respects the mutual rights of others. Like all rights, property rights are a sanction to act without interference from others, including government.

However, HRG abandons this principle and concedes that government may interfere with property use, so long as it doesn't go "too far." According to HRG, city council may regulate and control "what's truly historic." And by what standard will it be determined what is "truly historic"? Your guess is as good as mine.

Regardless of the standard used, the property owner will not be the one making that determination:
As expected, the revised law will close a loophole that allowed property owners to demolish the structures on their land even when a city commission disapproved of their plans.
Which means, if city officials determine that a property is "truly historic," the plans, aspirations, and judgment of the property owner is irrelevant. He will be forced to abide by the dictates of regulators. He will not be able to use his property as he chooses.

City council's preservationist du jour, Sue Lovell, was quick to demonstrate that she too has no understanding of property rights:
This is a very fair, open, transparent process. We've met with at least 200 citizens and heard what they had to say and listened to it. We've found a great balance between respecting people's property rights and also protecting and preserving the history of the city of Houston.
Nearly 2 million people live within the city limits of Houston, and Lovell considers it fair that 200 of them had a voice in the ordinance.  She considers it fair that 1 in 10,000 Houstonians had input regarding how others may use their property. This, she wants us to believe, is respecting property rights.

While I doubt that Lovell is really that happy with the proposed ordinance, it represents a complete victory for her and the preservationists. The moral premise underlying the ordinance was not challenged, and indeed, HRG endorsed it. Until that premise is challenged, and the right to property is completely and consistently defended, HRG will continue to bicker over details. And that is a victory for preservationists.

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