Wednesday, August 18, 2010

"Code Enforcement" and "Planning and Zoning", threats to private property rights.

I live in San Juan County, New Mexico, way up in the rural Four-Corners region where wide open spaces and vacant land far exceeds any urban sprawl or development.  Minimally maintained, and even non-maintained, dirt roads outnumber paved routes by hundreds of miles, and where some folks are stuck at home after heavy rains or snowstorms because the county simply doesn't have the resources to be everywhere at once with their graders or snow plows to re-open those routes blocked or washed away.

Recently, what appeared to be a small rainstorm completely washed away a bridge that served as the only crossing of a very large "wash", known locally as a "arroyo".  Several families were temporarily cut off from "civilization" until a temporary road could be built pending repairs.

Just yesterday (8/17/10), New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson declared Farmington a "disaster area" due to flooding which occurred two weeks ago.  (Incidentally, I drove through some of the affected "disaster area" the day after the flooding, and there was no "disaster".  Farmington merely was seeking, and will receive, a state "bailout").

On the very same day the area was approved for it's government bailout, the County where I live, despite supposed "disaster", held a meeting of the county commission and approved the creation of a "Code Compliance Department", with a quarter million dollar per year budget, a new full time employee, and the approval of the use of expensive-to-operate heavy equipment to "help" the county's new department accomplish it's goals.

And what are those goals?  No one really knows yet.  The county enacted a trash ordinance, but did not act on any other matters that require a Code Compliance Department.  As far as I can tell, they are planning to spend $250,000 a year to hire someone to drive around and tell people they can't burn their garbage, but must have it hauled to the local dump or a waste transfer station.  I guess they plan to use the "heavy equipment" to help haul that trash if a landowner cannot, or will not, do it him or herself.

I've lived here 8 years, and have yet to see a burn barrel  (They were a standard fixture in the back yards of homes when I lived in southern Illinois 25 years ago), or anyone burning their garbage. Awareness of the possible negative environmental results of burning such things as plastics have pretty much taken care of such issues.

So, like most governments, it would appear that they plan to spend a lot of tax dollars stretching an already stretched budget,  to address a nonexistent problem.  And they are doing it during a time when that very same government is professing to be broke, and is supposedly scrambling to find ways to raise taxes or fees to cover current revenue shortfalls, and existing problems such as the "disaster" of a few washed out roads.

However, as onerous as that is, the bigger issue here is the creation of a "Code Compliance Department" in the first place.

Private property rights have always been one of the main tenets of our free society.  People who own land have traditionally been able to do with that what they wish to do, within reason.  As long as those actions do not negatively effect their neighbors.  And there are limits to even this.  Obviously, some uses of land, such as for agricultural purposes like farming the raising of livestock, are going to effect the neighbors through increased heavy equipment traffic, or the associated odors or dust that occur.  Allowances are usually made for such things, as they are merely unavoidable aspects of such industries, and have been proven relatively harmless.

Health and sanitation codes already exist in most developed areas, which cover things such as sewage disposal, garbage and refuse, etc.

When cities and counties create "Code Compliance Departments", they are usually created to address the merely visual aspects of peoples private property.  Just like with any other government agency, it is always first created with the idea of benevolence and advertised as a way of "helping" people achieve some goal.  But helping them do what? In reality, what happens is someone, usually a government entity, must set "standards", and then force everyone to live within those standards.  And therein lies the danger:  Who creates the "standards"?  And what limits will be put on them?

Does government merely say "clean up your land" and then go away?  No.  What usually happens is once government gets their foot in the door, in it's every increasing desire for authority, government will gradually increase and tighten those "standards" until like in many cases, the citizens become servants of government, rather than the other way around.

First, they will regulate common sense issues like accumulated refuse such as household trash.  Next, someone decides it would be a good idea to pass an ordinance against weeds growing on private property. Never mind that the very same government might never mow the weeds along road "rights of way". (I've lived in the same house in my county for 8 years, and the county has NEVER mowed the weeds along the dirt roads in my neighborhood.  I've taken care of them myself)  Next thing you know, you cannot leave your shovel and rake, or lawnmower sitting outside where people can see them.  Then it escalates into the government telling you what color you can paint your fence, or your house.  And then they tell you you cannot keep a vehicle on your property unless it is "operational", and being "operational" includes being registered and insured to drive on a city street, not merely a vehicle capable of starting up and driving.  Eventually, the code enforcement inspector becomes bold enough to start interpreting the rules him or herself.

I once lived in a community where a Code Enforcement Officer told me it was illegal to change the oil in your own car, on your own property.  The reasoning?  She said inoperable vehicles were not allowed to be stored on private property, and during the time the oil was drained from the vehicle, the vehicle was inoperable, thus, the land owner could be cited for having an inoperable vehicle on his or her property.  I seriously doubt that when the ordinance was passed which outlawed inoperable vehicle on private property, that the folks who wrote the law, nor the folks who voted to pass it, had any idea that the law would one day be twisted like a pretzel into something that would make it illegal to do routine auto maintenance on one's own property..but so it goes.

In that same community, I used to hang my laundry up on an outdoor clothesline because the weather was so hot in the summer that clothes dried as fast outside on the line as they did in an automatic dryer.  Drying your clothes using completely solar power sounds like an environmentally responsible act, right?  Well, I was once cited by the city Code Compliance Officer for keeping a "dish full of miscellaneous objects" on a table in my carport.  The "dish" was a stainless steel hubcap, and the "miscellaneous objects" were clothespins used to hang up my laundry.  Not only was I utilizing solar power to dry my clothes, I had recycled an old hubcap into a rust free container for my clothespins, but that was not allowed.  I wonder what the city would have thought about one of those cloth hanging bags for clothespins that you hang right from the line.
It is ridiculous stuff like this that makes "Code Enforcement" so dangerous to private property rights.  What starts out as regulating what should be common sense issues, which can be taken care of with existing sanitation ordinances, eventually grows to become some bureaucrat's excuse to perpetuate their own job. After all, it's tough to find a reason to maintain a quarter-million dollar per year "Code Compliance Department" once everyone has taken out the trash.

Beware of out of control government.  Beware of "Code Enforcment" Officers, who come to your home and say "We're from the Government, and we're here to help you."  Once the government tells you how to live on your own property, is your home really your own?

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