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Property rights and unchecked growth

  • Wednesday, July 16, 2014

This idea that you have an individual right to do whatever you want with your land is very democratic, but the result is pretty questionable. – Andres Duany

I don’t agree with everything Andres Duany says, but the father of New Urbanism has some good ideas that have enhanced people’s property values and increased wealth for individual property owners. That’s a good thing, a very American thing, though I take issue with some of his unflattering statements about Americans’ view of property rights.

“Property rights.” That’s a term which, during the last great real estate boom, came to mean different things to different people. Here in the Lowcountry, it was often used to mean “developers’ rights.” Why? Because time and again, we saw local governments respond to large-scale developers who swooped in, bought up undeveloped land and used paid professionals to usher their projects through the government approval system. The developers usually were not legal residents of the towns or counties in which they were doing business. Often the legal residents of those jurisdictions spoke against the developers’ plans in whole or in part, only to see the developers get what they wanted.

Now, who amongst us is totally against all growth? We all know that there was a time when the house we live in and our own neighborhood did not exist. It reminds me of Sea Pines developer Charles Fraser’s definition of an environmentalist as a person who already has their dock on the creek.

So then, shouldn’t all property rights be inviolate?

Well, not so fast. Take the scenario mentioned above. Let’s say a developer gets approval to build 1,000 homes or a five-story building in a place the tax-paying, legal residents don’t want it. Let’s say the developer, or the developer’s lawyers or friends on council, cite the almighty “property rights” argument as the reason why anything other than approval is un-American. OK – can the neighbors retaliate by putting in low-end trailer parks or a junk yard right next to the fancy new development, with ugly chain-link fences and big spotlights at night to reduce crime? Do you think the developer wouldn’t go running back to the local government asking them to do something about that? You can just hear their argument about devaluation, quiet enjoyment, conforming uses, viewsheds, etc. It’s interesting to note that in the current battle over the proposed parking garage/office building in the Shem Creek Corridor, the developer himself says in his statements at Mount Pleasant town council meetings that he lives on the Isle of Palms. That means the value of his property and his quality of life are protected by building-height restrictions and limits on the sizes of new homes – you know, things that protect property values and the quality of life for an upscale coastal island.

“Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.” – Edward Abbey

For decades, counties and municipalities bought into the suburban growth model. The result is the kind of urban sprawl, traffic congestion and infrastructure pressure on law enforcement, fire protection and public schools that we are dealing with now. Property rights work both ways. In the good old days of open land and homesteading, you had a right to graze your livestock on your land and even to let them drink from the stream that ran through your property. But if you poisoned that stream and killed the livestock belonging to your neighbor downstream, I’m sure you would have faced justice, either formal or frontier-style.

So, as the Town of Mount Pleasant deals with issues such as approving The Boulevard Phase II and the parking garage/office building at Shem Creek, we will see more and more local property owners making their voices heard. They are the ones who have to deal with the excess parking in the streets, have their viewsheds altered and ultimately fund all the infrastructure needs spawned by growth for the sake of growth.

Will Haynie has published more than 400 op-ed columns as a feature columnist for the Asheville Citizen-Times and the Hendersonville Times-News when it was owned by the New York Times. His niche is as a humorous conservative. Find him on Twitter at @willhaynie or email him at Haynie.will@gmail.com.

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