When government hits the property owner, it often hits hard. A lifelong investment becomes virtually worthless because of wetland rules. A property that was to be sold to a builder is reduced to trivial value by a zoning change. A house built too high for an aesthetic rule brings on the attorney general's enforcement team. A secluded household near the waterfront is suddenly faced with a popular plan for a recreational trailright past the kitchen door. Or, on the nitty-gritty end of the spectrum, too much old stuff has accumulated on the grounds and the town blasts in with a lien for professional carting that exceeds the value of the property. And, as so many property owners are experiencing in recent years, the government announces a plan to condemn the neighborhood for urban redevelopment to substitute hotels and upscale stores for the ordinary houses and businesses.
Where was the property owner when all this was brewing? Not at the town board meetings, not at the city council deliberations, not at the office of the state senator and assembly member, and certainly not at the Congressional office.
What was the property owner doing with spare time while new government land-use rules and plans that would interfere with private property rights were gathering force, when existing powers of government were coming down on other people? With relatively few exceptions, the property owner was not writing letters to the editor, not speaking up at town meetings, not bringing friends and family and making formal statements at hearings on proposed regulations, and not writing letters to the state senator and assembly member, to the governor, to the U.S. Senator and Representative.
Suddenly, the property owner is slammed with the power of government. The reaction is invariably to telephone whatever government office that the afflicted person can bring to mind. Few individuals can even name their State Senator and Assembly Member, or their U.S. Representative and Senators. They have even less idea about who deals with what. For all the property owner knows, zoning could be a federal issue, which is still relatively rare, and wetland rules could be a local town issue, which is also still unusual. This lack of knowledge of the fundamentals of government provides a perfect escape route for the elected official from the aggrieved property owner. A quick form letter, a few solicitous words from a legislative aide, and the constituent is dispatched.
Acting in ignorance, the property owner has not even come close to calling government to account. Several web searches and telephone calls later, followed by an expensive foray into the world of law with formal legal representation, the property owner is often divested of substantial funds and has still suffered the government's infringement on his private property rights.
Imagine the difference in such an immediate situation, if, from the first inkling of information, the property owner had understood exactly which government agency and which particular representative body were responsible for the infringement. But, more importantly and in a far more practical sense, imagine the difference in governance if the property owner had been participating in government at the local, state and federal level on a routine basisif a significant number of the property owners in the area had stood up in the local town to prevent zoning, if they were constantly observing and communicating with their state representatives to modify the wetland laws, if they were out and fighting against trails through private property long before their own land were threatened
To get legislation enacted, to get agencies cleaned up, to end the injustice and arbitrariness of governmental control over private property, a good number of property owners need to team up, whether the problem is town, village, city, county, state, regional, or federal government.
The property owner should form a relationship with his or her representative. The most effective citizen is the one who has worked long and hard to participate in government, and is well known to the elected representative. Participation can develop into mutual respect. Elected representation is considered the hallmark of our form of government, but the elections are only the beginning of good citizenship. When many knowledgeable, principled citizens seriously participate in government, then we can hope to see the restoration of our lost property rights.
Many times, people do nothing because they cannot have everything. As a result, they indirectly contribute to the erosion of our fundamental rights. Considering that the Messianic Age of Private Property Rights does not appear to be rising over the horizon, property owners would do well to look to reform opportunities that would reduce the infringements on their property rights. Goals to level the playing field, while property owners hunker down to defend their rights, are in order. But, no matter how modest our goals, they should have two essential characteristics: