OPINION – One of the best things about local government is that it’s possible to go for days, weeks, or even months without really feeling its influence in our lives.
Outside of paying our utility bills, most of our encounters with municipal government are purely voluntary, as they should be. For a free people, that’s about as good as it gets. But vigorous code enforcement brings city government into our lives as a solution looking for a problem.
One of the highlights of the recent municipal election cycle was the topic of code enforcement finally getting a thorough discussion. It’s a shame that it took a lawsuit filed by the CAITS Institute against the City of St. George and various officials to get this long overdue dialogue started.
At its heart, code enforcement is an official mechanism to maintain cleanliness and order within a municipality. These are desirable attributes, but there are some questions that must be answered. For instance, do the ends always justify the means? Put more bluntly: How many of our rights are we willing to sacrifice for the sake of appearance?
Our sense of aesthetics, however refined, should not justify the use of government force against a neighbor who doesn’t share our high standards. Our disapproval over weeds, junk, or other eyesores does not equate with a legally actionable injury to our person or property.
A common justification for strict code enforcement is concern that an eyesore will drain the value from the properties around it. But unless those complaining are actively trying to sell their property at that moment, they’re asking that someone be punished for an injury that hasn’t yet happened.
Where is the harm in taking a concern to one’s neighbor or even offering to help clean up a substandard property? Once government gets involved, it’s too easy to switch off our consciences thereby absolving ourselves of personal responsibility. Our inner tyrant prefers using authority to force people to do what we want rather than persuading them to correct a problem.
This mindset of coercion creates a divide between neighbors where cooperation could build bonds.
Proponents of code enforcement maintain that we’d all be living next to slaughterhouses and toxic waste dumps if not for comprehensive codes and rigorous enforcement. We seem to presume the worst about others when the city is willing to play the heavy for us.
But often what began as well-meaning guidelines gradually morphs into a tangle of newly manufactured offenses to extract money from or exert power over property owners. The professed aim of helping homeowners starts looking more like a contrived—though ostensibly legal–means of collecting revenues.
Even the process by which a property owner can address a code enforcement complaint is hopelessly stacked against the accused. When they enter the administrative court established to handle such complaints, the judge and the code enforcement officer represent the interests of the city. But who represents the interests of the accused property owner?
If the goal was to find a win-win outcome for such disputes, the city might be more willing to grant a variance, or a conditional use permit on a case-by-case basis. But typically the only options for the accused are to cough up the money demanded and comply with the regulation they’re accused of breaking.
Property owners on the receiving end of code enforcement may better understand one of the complaints leveled against King George in the Declaration of Independence:
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.
John Locke defined tyranny as power exercised beyond right. The legal principle that our home is our castle has been a recognized part of jurisprudence since the 17th Century. When code enforcers presume to enter our property without invitation for the sole purpose of finding a reason to initiate legal action against us this principle is violated.
None of us signed a social contract waiving our property rights simply because we chose to live within a given municipality.
A person who has unlicensed vehicles on their property, too little shrubbery in their landscaping, or too many weeds is harming no one in any objectively provable way. But by threatening fines, confiscation, or the placing of liens or other legal action against a homeowner’s property, municipal governments overstep their proper limits.
Nuisances will still arise, but there are better ways to handle them than resorting to petty tyranny.
Bryan Hyde is a news commentator and co-host of the Perspectives talk show on Fox News 1450 AM 93.1 FM. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.
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