Replace Local Bureaucracy and Regulations with Wise Judges
Written By: Travis Buhler | Posted: Tuesday, May 24th, 2011
There have been some recent disputes among residents of this region that have thrown into view the issue of property rights. In Bloomer, a sand plant was denied permission to build because, among other reasons, the dust from the process would affect a nearby plastics factory. In Eau Claire, regulations for the use of signs was looked at due to a desire to temporarily place a lighted sign for an event. Other examples can be found in other articles of this paper.
The common thread of all these cases is government permission. Whether it's regulations, codes, or zoning requirements, all of these businesses must go through a period of time and paperwork in order to expand or even continue their businesses.
Some of the motives behind these regulations make sense. If the sand factory's dust harms a nearby factory or if a lighted sign flashes into a bedroom window keeping the residents awake at night, these are violations of another person's property.
But often that's not the case. Some people don't like the look of certain businesses near their house - a junkyard for example. In Eau Claire, you are forbidden to have mobile marquee signs in front of your business. It makes the city look "trashy" one local sign company said concerning the ordinance, resulting in lowered property values. Residential neighborhoods don't allow businesses because, among other reasons, too much traffic could result.
But despite the plausible arguments, these codes often violate our right to do what we want on our own property. According to James Bovard, "Modern zoning laws presume that no citizen has a right to control his own land - and that every citizen has a right to control his neighbor's land. In zoning disputes, property rights, like some type of mysterious vapor, reside any place except with the property owner."
But what should be done concerning real violations of other properties? Let me propose a return to the role of the local judge. Zoning laws are less than a century old. Then people were able to do what they wanted on their own property. If there was a disagreement between neighbors, a judge could determine if a violation of property rights occurred or if the neighbor was merely annoyed.
Businesses were able to do what they wanted on their properties, unless it harmed others. A wise judge would be able to consider the evidence and rule according to the specific incident, not according to whether an ordinance was violated.
Let me give a real modern example. A friend of mine had a neighbor that was annoyed by the large number of dandelions in her yard. He had the city of Eau Claire cite her for violating its code concerning the number of dandelions per square foot (yes, Eau Claire has an ordinance on this). In an absence of ordinances concerning weeds, would a judge have done the same? Would the neighbor even bother taking up the issue in court.
If a sand fracking company wants to build a sand cleaning plant on its own property it's free to do so. No need to seek the city's permission if we were to have true property rights. But the company better do its homework first. If a judge was to find that dust from the new factory was ruining the products of the nearby plastics factory, it may have to tear the sand plant down and pay for damages.
As John Stossel said in his recent article, "The surest environmental protectors are property rights - and courts that assign liability to polluters."
The system I am proposing comes with certain criterion. First, the judges must be wise and understand the basic individual rights given to us by God. Second all property ordinances must be eliminated so that judges can't just merely rule based on a petty code. Third, judicial precedence must be lowered in importance. Sand factory emissions harming a nearby plastic factory isn't a reason to ban them for all time. It just means that sand factories better know their neighbors before building a cleaning plant.
Many of the reasons behind these ordinances, loss of beauty, loss of neighborhood property values, increases in traffic, aren't verifiable and would not stand before a judge who understands property rights. Most of today's ordinances are crafted because either annoyed neighbors or crafty elitists want to dictate to their neighbors how they would like their locality to look or because they think they know best how a city should grow economically. But according to U. S. Economic Freedom Index (written by Forbes and Pacific Research Institute), "those states ranked higher in objective measures of economic freedom tend to have higher growth rates in income, employment, and population."
God gave us a right to enjoy our property. The fourth amendment testifies to this right. Disputes happen. It's not a perfect world, but a return to the role of judges would bring back to life our property rights.
Travis Buhler paints houses and is a regular contributor to the Eau Claire Journal. He and his wife Jennifer have seven children and live in Augusta.