It’s been almost four weeks since the hostage situation took place at the Morrison County Government Center.  This fish still feels shaken by that event and will try not to comment directly on it further other than to say that the Morrison County Record did a fine job of covering the various angles of the situation.  (If you want to find the Record’s articles, just go to its website and type Gordon Wheeler into the search feature.)

What I’d like to do, instead, is discuss property rights because this is ostensibly what was at the root of the event.  When it comes to owning property, most Americans believe that property owners should be able to do whatever they want with their property.  In direct opposition to this thought is the belief that we also get to decide what our neighbors do with their property.  (How often have you found that your lawn aesthetic doesn’t match that of your neighbor’s?  Or complained about how that neighborhood feed lot is going to decrease the value of your property?)

So, which is it?  Do we get to do what we want with our property, or are we going to set up rules that restrict what our neighbors do?  There are no easy answers to this question, yet, when there is a dispute over property rights, someone has to step in and make some sort of decision.

That’s where our govenment officials come in – our county commissioners, city administrators, planning & zoning officials, and inspectors.  Not only are these officials concerned with making decisions about individual property rights, they also have to keep an eye on what’s good for an entire community, plus make sure their decisions square with local ordinances and state laws.  The latter can be notoriously difficult to interpret due to vague language that’s meant to cover all possible situations.

These officials juggle all of the aforementioned requirements and variables in making their decisions and sometimes their decisions don’t sit well with the property owner or with the public.  Then what?  Well, the property owner and public can learn to live with the decisions or the decisions can be appealed to a higher authority.  Perhaps a particular law in question needs to be revised, in which case those concerned with the issue can head to the legislature and work that angle.  If a property rights decision seems particularly unfair, but can’t seem to be resolved with a particular set of government officials, perhaps it’s time to use the power of the vote to bring new leaders into the situation.  The point is that there are all sorts of potential solutions to a property rights disagreement.

The real crux of the matter, however, is that property rights decisions are notoriously contentious because of the underlying premises I mentioned at the beginning of this post.  Sometimes there just isn’t an easy fix, no matter how thoughtfully officials contemplate an issue, and no matter how hard a property owner works to get a decision changed in his/her favor.  What we need to change is our idea of owning property.  While we may legally “own” a piece of property, we don’t really own it.  We’re just borrowing it for a time.  It behooves us to think about who will be using the land next and start making decisions not simply for our own selfish needs, but for the needs of its future inhabitants.

I’ll share my reef, if you’ll share yours,

Phineas F. A. Pickerel

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