At the Atlantic Cities, Anthony Flint writes on recent Tea Party activism in urban development arena. Tea Party groups across the country have spoken out against all manner of urbanist plans, from CAHSR to Smart Growth in Florida. Flint opines:
What’s driving the rebellion is a view that government should have no role in planning or shaping the built environment that in any way interferes with private property rights.
Both Flint and the Tea Party members that he’s writing about are seeing right past an essential property right. Don’t landowners have a right to employ their property as they see fit without explicit approval from their communities? Smart Growth tends to limit the right to build sprawl although its historic presercation component creates competing objectives. Traditional land use planning limits property owners’ right to build too though.
In an article all about the Tea Part and land use, Stephanie Mencimer at Mother Jones quotes a Tea Party activist who said, “”We don’t need none of that smart growth communism.” I love this as a stand alone quote, but this activist is ignoring the other side of the issue. Traditional planning, at least as top down as Smart Growth, has shaped his or her presumably suburban neighborhood. How about, “We don’t want these socialist setback requirements,” or “Down with pinko minimum lot sizes?”
Property rights in land use are, of course, a contentious and debatable issue. Charlie Gardner offers a summary of the court decisions that have led to a world where municipal governments are permitted to take away property rights without compensating land owners for these takings by limiting the density and uses that they are allowed to build.
The suburbanist side of this debate is that property rights include the right to control a certain degree of land use for the land adjacent to your property. These tend to include the to free and easily available parking, the right to see a green lawn in your neighbor’s yard, and the right to limit building heights.
As I see it though, these rights do not come with landownership. Those Tea Party activists who identify as libertarians presumably support John Stuart Mill’s harm principle. This principle was captured perhaps most concisely by Zechariah Chafee, Jr. who said, “Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins.” I cannot ask government to intervene just because I think your behavior is weird or doesn’t fit with my preferred lifestyle so long as you aren’t violating mine or anyone else’s person or property.
As I see it, the harm principle extends quite straightforwardly to land use; your right to build and conduct business ends where your neighbor’s property line begins. For those who wish to live in a regulated community, the market provides plenty of HOA’s that should meet their needs just fine without relying on government land use restrictions. For commercial land uses, Business Improvement Districts can likewise provide a regulated built environment through voluntary private contracts.