Whither Private Property

A man has to tear down a house he built with his own money on his own property because he did not get government bureaucrats' permission to build it.  Don't tell me we are living in a free market economy when the only way to build shelter on your own property is to do it in secret.

  • morganovich

    i suspect that this is a bit more complex an issue than that.

    one the one hand, i utterly agree that planning boards and building codes are far, far out of hand. it is nobody's business but mine how many outlets per counter foot i have in my kitchen or if i want to turn a full bath into a half bath (TARPA, the tahoe planning agency wanted a water use study if we did this)

    on the other, i don't want to live in a world without zoning either in which the value of my property can be degraded by someone putting in a cement plant next to my pool deck.

    in this case, it doesn't look like he harmed anyone, so it's probably hard to make the "this degraded other's property" argument.

    that said, he did break the law. we can say, hey, it's a dumb law and ought to be changed, but a speeder could argue that about speed limits just as a thief could argue it about stealing.

    if we agree that the government has the right to make and uphold laws, then we have to let them, even if we think laws are dumb. allowing each of us to make a determination as to which laws our worth following for ourselves negates the law entire.

    there is also likely a tax issue here. how is hiding the existence of a house and not paying taxes on it any different from hiding an investment account and doing likewise?

    we may chafe about property tax burdens etc, but again, if we grant government a right to tax to pay for services like roads and fire departments etc we can argue over how much they ought to tax and for what services, but once such rules are established, we can't negate them for ourselves just because we feel like it.

    i always find myself conflicted in situations like this as, while i don't see anything wrong with how he built his house and suspect that the local planning board was overbearing, they are also correct in insisting that he follow the law such as it is.

    perhaps his case will be the sort of protest action that gets laws changed, but such things always have a price at the time...

  • frankania

    I fail to see the insane logic in "tearing it down" It is a fine looking house. Why not just fine him and make him pay for the building permit and any owed taxes? If I were he, I would stay in the house come hell or govt. wreckers & invite the media to come see the confrontation.
    Society as a whole always loses when something of value is made worthless.

  • joel

    This is happening in England, and from what I have seen it has been a long time since that 1984ish nanny-state could be called a free country.

  • artemis

    @morganovich - You have no guarantees of asset value. Nothing guarantees you any rights concerning the continued value of (xyz) property you have chosen to invest in. In fact the concept that the government should protect *your* investments over someone elses (in your example the cement company) is exactly how we got into this mess we are in. You're making Coyote's point beautifully. We are losing free markets worldwide because individuals (or groups of individuals) exert pressure on the government to give them some form of guarantee against asset depreciation.

    Of course most (you included) don't seem to realize that the government can't guarantee the value of anything. Take your case. The cement plant just decreases the value to *homeowners*. It could in fact DRASTICALLY increase the value to a business that depended on a readily available supply of cement. Moreover if the options were A: Have cement plant, or B: have a lot of empty lots.. the empty lots are still worse.

    It's this a novel idea you have. "Everyone within X miles of me should be forced to comply to this vague standard of 'good enough' that I think will ensure the continued appreciation of my investment".

    Don't want bad neighbors? Move to someplace where you can buy enough land to make sure you don't have neighors.

  • smurfy

    I fail to see the insane logic in “tearing it down”

    Like Morganovich, I'm in the Tahoe area. I have seen many examples of people who are rich enough to not care about the fines who will openly flaunt permitting laws. Pine trees are an important public asset here, they also block views. This friction has lead to homeowners risking hundred thousand dollar fines to cut down or poison trees blocking their view. The last lady who got busted cut down some trees that were not even on her property. You can't put back 100 year old trees so there really is no way to stop the homeowner from benefiting from her illegal activity. When multi-million dollar lots are tear downs fines might not be enough to ensure compliance. And it has been my experience that the people who skirt the law don't do it to save a gfci here or there, they do it to get significant gains they know aren't going to fly if permitted. Like building a deck in the 100 year flood plain or putting a portion of the structure into a setback. Pretty important stuff. I'm curious to know If there is some significant un-permittable aspect of this guys castle or whether he just didn't want the hassle.

    Still, permitting is so far out of hand. Last year my company designed and built a carport to cover a portion of our fleet. We thought we'd just do this in-house, we have engineers who can stamp and cad techs and what not. I mean, it's a glorified shed, it sits on an existing asphalt lot. Big mistake. The permitting authority treated our application the same as they would a multi-story office building. We ended up hiring a local architect, not to re-draw our plans but just to communicate with the building department and get our project pushed through.

  • artemis

    At exactly what age does something become a "public asset"? If my family has owned the land since the trees sprouted, do I automatically lose the rights to those trees in 100 years? If not then how should it work. Can natural assets not be transferred?

    Again, there's the presumption that because you see something as desirable it should be preserved for all, whether they give a damn about it or not.

    If someone is dumb enough to build a deck on a 100 year flood plain, that's their problem. They'll lose the deck. People cutting down trees not on their property is a side issue that smears a group (anyone who wants to cut trees) by associating them with a separate group (people who vandalize the property of others).

    And as you've noted... regulations don't stop anything. They just restrict who can get away with doing it.

  • In Germany, they have the "right to build" built into their federal constitution. It was a reaction to the Nazis using discretionary authority to persecute folk. They seem to manage just fine: indeed, they have avoided any housing bubbles because their house prices have moved about the rate of inflation since housing supply can respond to housing demand. Houston also manages without zoning laws.

    The trouble with zoning laws is that, once you allow official discretion, you are away. The interests of incumbent property owners get to trump market-entrants and the insanity starts. (One of the original reasons for US zoning laws was to get the blacks out.)

    As for degrading of neighbour's property, there are common law protections and it has been suggested that property value insurance might be a useful response.

  • morganovich

    artemis-

    no one said anything about guarantees of asset value. you are confusing two concepts. i'm saying that living in a spot where i have reasonable guarantees about what my neighbors can and cannot do has value to me. your argument utterly misses the point. you create a straw man that has absolutely nothing to do with what i said by taking it to a ludicrous extreme.

    zoning rules prevent anyone from opening a concrete plant or a tannery next to me. contrary to your apparent assumption that all limits are bad, i view this as a good thing. i would be willing to pay more for property that could not have an industrial site put in next door. you know what the zoning is when you buy. if you don't check, then it's your lookout. you notion that we all ought to be able to just build whatever we want wherever we want is insane. very few people would prefer to live that way. in a city, it becomes utterly ridiculous.

    someone who wants to be near a concrete plant shouldn't buy a place on russian hill in san Francisco.

    if you want to paint your house electric blue or intall shag carpet, that's all fine, but if you want to create a nuisance like noise or pollution or dust that affects your neighbors on their property, that's not.

    are you telling me you don't care at all who your neighbors are and what they do? can i come and open an all night hip hop club with 80,000 watts of sound next door to you built right up to your property line? you're going to love the 3AM outdoor shows i have planned. hey, maybe the free music will increase your property value!

    get a grip man.

  • Steve

    Most of you serfs arguing about the reasonableness of groups of people deciding what private individuals can do with their own property have no clue. There is simply no reason to interfere in someone's private affairs like this. None!

    I would never do such a thing to any of you. I was raised better than that.

    Reading stories like this, I have fantasies of the people responsible for this hideous decision being beaten about the head with a stick--not to kill them, just to make them forever as ugly on the outside as on the inside. And, maybe tear down their houses and flatten their autos.

    It's a damned shame that so many people let this sort of thing go by without much notice. Like Solzhenitsyn said, if the people lay in wait under staircases with sticks and kitchen knives to waylay the Cheka when they came at night, rather than hiding in their own apartments, they could have made it too costly for the Soviets to imprison and murder so many millions.

  • DOuglas2

    This guy's big sin was that his new home was on "green belt land", land near a town but undeveloped except for agricultural use, and therefore considered a public good even though he nominally had title and use of it for agriculture. There is absolutely no way he would ever have been given "planning consent" (zoning approval) for its construction.
    The law is quite clear, however, that once 4 years from "substantial completion" have passed the government is barred from any enforcement action against unpermitted development.
    The judge got around the clear text of the law by upholding a "finding of fact" of a planning inspector that "the erection/removal of the straw bales was an integral - indeed an essential ‘fundamentally related’ - part of the building operations" and therefore the house -- although completed and lived in for over four years -- was not in law completed until the hay bales (on this hay farm!) were moved so that it was fully exposed to public view.

    The text of English law is hard to find but here is Scottish guidance on what "substantial completion" might mean in situations where you were not already on the bad side of your local planning official:
    http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Publications/2009/09/16092848/2

  • IGotBupkis

    I personally think zoning boards are generally a bad thing from a libertarian view, but I am also not vehemently against them. I do believe their capacities should be limited to defining a few dozen categories, tops -- and enforcing that level of compliance. By limiting their max capacity to control and manipulate, you reduce the potential for abuse by the world's petty tyrants.

  • Bob Smith

    i don’t want to live in a world without zoning either in which the value of my property can be degraded by someone putting in a cement plant next to my pool deck

    I frequently see zoning defended with arguments of this type. On what facts is it based on? Has this ever happened, anywhere?

  • Bob Smith

    i’m saying that living in a spot where i have reasonable guarantees about what my neighbors can and cannot do has value to me.

    Then pay your neighbors for that right rather than using the force of law to get it for free.

    Deed restrictions are how it's done in Houston. It's effectively private zoning.

  • First of all, the case is in England. They haven't had any rights for a long time... the place has gone way down hill.

    ...

    Zoning has its value and clearly many people feel that way. Protecting the nature of an area can be important. Also, zoning can in theory be done without removing property value: grandfathering.

    The alternative I have experienced to zoning is home-owner associations. They are strictly private, but many people have found them to be much worse than zoning boards. Furthermore, they are ubiquitous in new communities (here in AZ). As a ham radio operator, I am, strictly by private property owners, effectively prevented from living in a new development (or any built since the late '70s). In this case, government zoning, constrained by laws and constitutional restrictions, is more friendly to my interests (and actually, more reasonable in many areas) than the libertarian approach.

    In the real world, zoning can hurt your rights because they can change the rules AFTER you buy (the same as home-owners associations do all the time).

    In the instant case, it sounds like the homeowner violated a law to preserve a commons. If he bought that house after the law was in place, and we know he knowingly violated the law, then he deserves no sympathy - even if the law is idiotic. If they passed the law after he bought the house, he should have been compensated for the consequent loss in value (a principle at least in the US Constitution, at least, except that it is routinely ignored or the definition of "fair market value" is meaningless).

  • @morganovich

    "no one said anything about guarantees of asset value."

    *You* did, right here, in the third paragraph of your first post, just above:
    "i don’t want to live in a world without zoning either in which **the value of my property can be degraded by someone putting in a cement plant next to my pool deck**"

  • IgotBupkis

    > I frequently see zoning defended with arguments of this type. On what facts is it based on? Has this ever happened, anywhere?

    Well, this isn't exactly the same, but one can certainly see how it applies.

    It's the kind of tale which justifies "Neighborhood Management Boards" and "Homeowner Associations", and I say that as someone for whom such things are repulsive...

    And it's pretty funny, in a demented sort of way. Be sure to look at the pic-links... The descriptions just don't do it justice in some cases.

    A search on "neighbor from hell" does show a few sites dedicated to various tales of woe.

    The problem with HAs (as well as Condo Associations) and so forth is that they seem to attract the worst sort of tin-pot petty tyrants onto them, even worse than those who manage to get themselves onto zoning boards. I recall one in Tampa Florida that refused to allow someone to build their kid a treehouse that would have been in their backyard and visible only from adjacent property -- not the street (and the neighbors didn't have a problem with it). That one was on the national news.

  • txjim

    I have friends who immigrated from Holland who told me similar stories of permits for normal farm activities like tree removal, digging a pond or erecting a barn. They said they spent as much time dealing with regulations as they did actually farming. The deal-breaker came when they realized if they failed at farming they would only go broke. But if they failed at paperwork they could go broke AND loose their property and possibly go to jail, no matter their skill at running a farm! The main reason why they came here was to escape the nanny state in their country. If we don't put a stop to every encroachment, it will be like that here.

    HOA's and the sort are exactly as IgotBupkis said: tin-pot tyrants with too much time on their hands. At least in those cases, you are forewarned of the restrictions before you buy the property so you get what you pay for.

    We need to run these nanny statists out of a job and change the laws so they can't easily sneak back in. If that doesn't work, we need to bring back the knuckle sandwich and have it ready when these yahoos show up on our doorstep to tell us what is permitted on our own property.

  • rxc

    I think it all depends on how each particular case turns out, which depends on whether the judge carefully considers all sides of the matter before deciding. I have seen cases where a busy-body did not like the looks of a deck on the back of a house, and filed a complaint that ended up with the people having to tear it down and get a permit to re-build it. In another more personal case, a neighbor has erected a chicken pen about 20 feet from my dining room window, and we think we may have a cause of action (in France there is a large body of law about "troubles de voisinage" (neighbor difficulties)). Each of these cases needs to be decided individually, without mindless application of the law - unfortunately, this is how lawyers get rich. I

  • IgotBupkis

    > you are forewarned of the restrictions before you buy the property so you get what you pay for.

    Unfortunately, not always, as new boards can add rules, and new members can take it on themselves to enforce gray areas in both rule and law which violate the spirit/intent of such arrangements while creating enough personal havoc that it ruins your quality of life for an extended time. It's usually a matter of some tin-pot dictator wanting others to be as miserable as they are.

    The world is either a better place for your presence, or it's not, and some people seem to think that it's better to add to the misery to "even it out" than to work to lessen their own.

    Some people don't get the idea of kharma, and, regardless of whether you believe its religious elements, you ought to run your life as though you did.

  • I'm sorry, didn't catch the chap's name... did someone say Arthur Dent? I was wondering when they were getting around to building the intergalactic superhighway. Now I'll go back to looking for my misplaced towel.

    So long and thanks for all the fish!

  • Unfortunately, not always, as new boards can add rules, and new members can take it on themselves to enforce gray areas in both rule and law which violate the spirit/intent of such arrangements while creating enough personal havoc that it ruins your quality of life for an extended time. It’s usually a matter of some tin-pot dictator wanting others to be as miserable as they are.

    When you buy, you get a copy of the rules, which includes the rules on how rules are changed. If you agree to them, and are not under duress (see below), then hey, it's your problem if they change things.

    Duress: if every home of a particular category is covered by the same rules, then you are essentially under duress if you need to buy a home of that category. One could make a legal argument of this, but good luck selling it. Morally, though, it's pretty strong.

  • Scott McKenzie

    Permits are not hard to get (in most cases) and they are not expensive either. They protect society from irresponsible owners/builders. This guy should get with the program and get a permit.

  • Redneck

    I found Igotbupkis bad neighbor link funny, mostly because of how nosy the person complaining was, especially the pictures taken through the blinds.

    Txjim, where I'm from in farming country here in the US, we have basically the same things as your friends from Holland, except for the tree stumps. The only barn I know for sure that didn't need a permit was a little shed 20 x 10 ft, with a dirt floor. Even then, the assessors were out snooping with a few days.

    I also find it hard to trust zoning when the biggest supporter locally was the county commissioner/land developer throwing up quick and ugly houses out on former farm ground. You know it's about responsibility when those guys are in charge! With people like that 'protecting' society, I'd prefer not having permits so they can have real competition.

  • IgotBupkis

    > When you buy, you get a copy of the rules, which includes the rules on how rules are changed. If you agree to them, and are not under duress (see below), then hey, it’s your problem if they change things.

    So, assuming you're an American (alter suitably for wherever you are), you have no problem if they pass laws by whatever legal requirements necessary to enslave you and your family, and to take away any assets you possess? "Hey, just so long as they do it legally..." Right?

    The lawmaking (rule making) process can always be hijacked by self-serving charlatans and idiots, and sometimes, if not often, the actual correction of that abuse of process can be so disruptive of your life that it's even worse than the abuse itself.

    Just as an example -- It's blatantly self-evident that the Bono Copyright Extension act, by altering the state of "things already in play", is an ex-post facto bill of attainder, and thus overtly unconstitutional. However -- challenging this in court and winning (or, for that matter, changing it through legislative action), given that one of your chief opponents will be all the lawyers working for (and/or the lobbying resources of) Disney, Inc., is hardly likely to be a constructive use of your limited time on earth. This does not alter either the Constitutionality or the wrongness of the bill in question. It only speaks to the various opportunity costs of ignoring it, changing it, or fighting it.

  • So, assuming you’re an American (alter suitably for wherever you are), you have no problem if they pass laws by whatever legal requirements necessary to enslave you and your family, and to take away any assets you possess? “Hey, just so long as they do it legally…” Right?

    You were responding to my post on Homeowner Associations. Those are voluntary associations - don't buy the property, and you won't have a problem with them. They also do not make laws, and the rules they can make are limited by laws and the constitution (not that they still can't be a royal pain).

  • Scott McKenzie: "Permits are not hard to get (in most cases) and they are not expensive either. They protect society from irresponsible owners/builders. This guy should get with the program and get a permit."

    Scott, the "program" amounts to some subset of people claiming authority over the lives of others, which may or may not be as reasonable as you suggest. If it were reasonable, then there wouldn't be any need to callously suggest that someone "get with the program" (i.e., obey the dictates of the subset, under threat of force). Instead, the interested parties could work things out through reason, without resorting to force.

    Whenever you initiate the use or threat of force, you've lost the moral high ground.

    You should allow individuals to exercise their rights to live their lives on their own terms (including dispensing with their property as they see fit). So long as they are hurting no one else, it's their business and you and the petty commissioners and judges should keep your noses out of their business.

  • DrTorch

    I agree w/ Frankania.

    Zoning restrictions have their place, but it's easy to see how things get carried away.

    And is anyone in Britain considering the environmental impact on all of this? Tearing down a house is a huge waste of resources.