Your Property, Our Community: Community Rights v. Property Rights

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Long ago it was recognized that all property in this country is held under the implied obligation that the owner’s use of it shall not be injurious to the community.” Justice Blackmun

There is an old saying that goes, “good fences make good neighbors.” This means that if you do something on your property that affects your neighbors in a negative manner, then your neighbors won’t be too happy with you. In other words, you don’t have an absolute right to do with your property whatever you want to do. This is an unfortunate truth for Property Rights people and good news to Community Rights people.

This tension between property and community rights came to light a couple of weeks ago during a rezoning issue before the City Council. A block of property owners were witnessing a degradation of their neighborhood. Developers were trying to buy single-home lots on their block to add multiple houses on those lots. So, these property owners wanted to “downzone” their own properties to prevent their lots and their neighbors’ lots from being subdivided. In effect, what these owners were asking the City Council was to make their properties less valuable. Why would anyone want to do that?

It’s because this is no ordinary neighborhood in Chula Vista. It is probably the most historic section of the city. It has houses that are 100 years old on very large lots of land, and large lots of land attract developers like bees to honey. In theory, a developer could have bought one of these lots and subdivided the land to add six houses where before there was just one. As one former resident noted, “Chula Vista could turn into Los Angeles.”

Property Rights people believe that, as long as it is legal (zoning, permits, etc.), a property owner (or developer) has the god-given and constitutional right to do whatever they want with their property. Property Rights advocates see this a very clear rule. Interestingly, this argument is usually used not to support a homeowner but a developer and by people that have no interest in the outcome. It’s just a core issue with them. If it’s legal and zoning won’t prevent it, they feel that a property owner (or developer) has the right to build a 50-story skyscraper next to single-story homes. If they want to sell it to a developer who will build six houses next door to you, Property Rights advocates will tell you that it is their right to do that. That is unfortunate.

What Property Rights people forget is that people own property in a community. When you add six additional homes to a neighborhood, you also add the parking and the traffic that comes with the additional households. Now multiply six times the potential number of lots that could be subdivided and that neighborhood has now been completely transformed. Or, take a neighborhood that is currently zoned for single-home residences and the City rezones it to multi-home zoning. Is this fair for the current owners? Property Rights advocates would tell them, “too bad, this is progress.”

In the end, the property owners got their wish and with a 3-1 vote their lots were zoned for bigger lots. Their neighborhood will maintain its character. However, this Property Rights v. Community Rights issue is an ongoing debate in Chula Vista. Property Rights people are not shy to tell you that it’s your right to do whatever you want with your property. Of course, it would be curious to see if a 50-story building was planned to be built next door to them, how strong would they be about their position then?

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7 Responses to Your Property, Our Community: Community Rights v. Property Rights

  1. Robert Ross says:

    while I agree with your position on property rights, your description of the city council meeting is somewhat incomplete.j

  2. Bryan Felber says:

    I agree that there are community rights, which is why we have zoning and municipal codes at all that limit the rights and behaviors of people for the good of all. That’s why we can’t have loud parties in our backyards until 4:00 in the morning or build structures outside height and set back limitations. I supported the historic preservation ordinance even though it does impact property rights somewhat. A property rights purist would likely oppose such restrictions. I don’t believe I know anyone that is such a purist.
    I also support the proponents’ right to try to make a change and I even sympathize with their concerns. I love the homes in the neighborhood. I used to live in the neighborhood and enjoyed walking or driving by the homes and the charm they added to the neighborhood. I wish 100% of the owners were supportive of the rezone. In fact, if I had my wish, that block would contain only historic homes with lots of green space between them.
    The issue for me is that there was not 100% support for the rezone among all of the property owners. A few were opposed and a few did not respond to the survey. Were those that didn’t respond not home? Did tenants live at any of these and was an attempt made to contact the actual owners? Was the language and impact made absolutely clear to everyone? The petition or survey was performed by those who wanted the change. Was the information provided objective or was there any bias toward the proponents side?
    Most of the proponents had already realized the benefit of splitting their lots and were now going to deny those not supporting the rezone the right to do what they had already done.
    If any area within Chula Vista is fit for creating a historic district, this is it. It seems that doing this is the better answer, but it’s much more difficult and costly for the proponents. While a historic district may not necessaily limit density, it would require harmonizing development.
    It was really a matter of fairness for me, that is that some people were going to have a right taken away from them from which most of the propnents had already had already benefitted.
    James Madison wrote:
    That is not a just government, nor is property secure under it, where the property which a man has in his personal safety and personal liberty, is violated by arbitrary seizures of one class of citizens for the service of the rest.
    If the United States mean to obtain or deserve the full praise due to wise and just governments, they will equally respect the rights of property, and the property in rights: they will rival the government that most sacredly guards the former; and by repelling its example in violating the latter, will make themselves a pattern to that and all other governments.
    James Madison, “Property,” March 27, 1792, in William T. Hutchinson et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison, Vol. 14 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962–present), 266–68.
    “ . . . measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.”
    James Madison, “No. 10: The Same Subject Continued,” in Clinton Rossiter, ed., The Federalist Papers (New York: Mentor, 1999), 71–79.

  3. Thank you, Bryan, for the comment and for giving some background to the rationale behind the Planning Commission decision. This part seemed to be missing during the Council discussion. You also bring up good points specifically on the issue of “due process.”

  4. Lorraine S. Van Cleave says:

    In general, even though there should be some “higher-density” areas to accommodate families/lower income people, these should be carefully planned for (including the cost of all infrastructure for at least several decades) and not infringe on the character and importance of the surrounding area already in existence. All factors must be carefully considered to make a decision that is appropriate to the situation being considered; how it will affect people not only today, but in the future as well. Careful reasoning and moderation should be the rule, and the last thing to be considered is a few “getting rich quickly,” leaving a mess for those who follow, both in the city government and the particular community.

  5. Robert Ross says:

    Some of the points mentioned in Bryan Feber’s comments were brought up by Mayor Cox in the council’s discussion.

  6. David Danciu says:

    Mr. Felber, I believe that, in this case, it was clearly demonstrated that a very large majority of the affected homeowners supported this change. To reach 100% would be next to impossible. James Madison’s writing could also be interpreted as against “seizure” of property as stated. Eminent domain law, especially in Chula Vista, does not mean anything goes for profit despite what some feel should be the case. Sometimes the “character” of an area is the overriding factor regarding land use.

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