OPINION – It’s too easy to shake our heads and shrug off the difficulties of strangers as regrettable statistical abstractions. We do it with automobile accidents, with crimes, and when others are diagnosed with incurable diseases.
It’s not that we’re insensitive or that we take joy in their predicament. More often than not, it’s simply that we haven’t been in that situation ourselves.
But when such things happen to someone we know personally or, heaven forbid, happen to us — our thinking changes. Unless, of course, a person is having difficulty with their local government.
For instance, when someone complains about code enforcement abuse in St. George, too many people automatically assume that the recipient must have done something to deserve it. But the number of people who have been strong-armed has grown until it is reaching a tipping point.
After years of increasingly authoritarian code enforcement, St. George officials are facing some long overdue resistance from the public. In its defense, the city claims these intrusive ordinances were enacted to “protect and preserve” its neighborhoods.
We’re told that such ordinances and codes are necessary to prevent a neighbor from putting in a pig farm or a chemical dump next door. These worst-case scenarios are intended to put us into a mindset of fear that chaos would reign without strict enforcement.
But the actual violations that St. George City code enforcers are sent out to discover and correct are too often monsters of the city’s creation.
For instance, in the past week, I’ve spoken with two individuals who called in to the Perspectives radio show I co-host who said they have been directly affected by code enforcement for the flimsiest of reasons.
Don told me of how he was threatened for having his unregistered jeep sitting in the driveway of his home. Keep in mind that this is not a collection of jeep parts or a pile of rust in the shape of a jeep. It’s a lawfully owned piece of personal property that is not currently running.
For a time, Don moved his jeep into his garage and the threatening letters from the city stopped. But when he had to move it back into the driveway to make room to store other property in his garage, the threats resumed.
Diane had purchased a 35-foot recreational vehicle that she parked at the side of her home. A code enforcer then trespassed 150 feet onto her property to determine that the vehicle was not licensed.
Previously, when the RV was licensed but parked on the street near her home, she had been cited and told to move it off the street. The city began imposing fines even as she was trying to get it running again. Eventually, Diane had to give the RV away for scrap to pay for the cost of having it towed away.
By what reasonable standard does the city have any right to insert itself into either of these people’s lives? The heel-clickers among us will try to hide behind the code saying: “If you are in compliance, you have nothing to fear.”
But their more-compliant-than-thou attitudes are conveniently blinding them to the real issue: Are the city’s actions really necessary to protect rights and serve justice?
The vehicles were causing no harm and did not present a danger to anyone. If the fact that they were unregistered is the real cause of concern, then the city should just come out and admit that it wishes to extort money from us in return for permission to keep our property.
Neighbors who would claim that the mere presence of Don’s unregistered Jeep or Diane’s unlicensed RV have harmed their property values need to consider if that’s really what’s at stake.
Do they have a recent appraisal showing the alleged drop in their property’s value? Are they in the process of actively selling their home? Can they demonstrate that measurable, objective harm has occurred?
If not, then they are most likely indulging a penchant to impose their will upon their neighbors. That is not a legitimate function of government at any level.
For every actual threat or problem addressed by code enforcement, we find a growing number of disputes that were actually created by it.
This is why it’s essential to recognize that behind every instance of authoritarian code enforcement, there is a person who is suffering very real consequences.
This can be difficult to appreciate when you’re not the one who has just received a letter from a complete stranger asserting authority over you and your property.
To dismiss the violation of their property rights as part of the price of living in an orderly community encourages the eventual abuse of our own. If we wouldn’t stand for it happening to us, then we should be willing to speak out when it happens to others.
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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