LETTER TO THE EDITOR: When Your Home is Not Your Castle

Yaron Brook

Should random passersby be able to dictate the color of your house?The Lake Tahoe Regional Planning agency is advancing this and other assaults on property owners living around Lake Tahoe. A recent 12-to-1 vote by the agency recommends a swarm of new regulations mandating that homes near the lake be smaller and less visible.

“Think of the millions of people who come here to see the clear water, trees, [and] natural landscape,” explains agency spokeswoman Jill Keller. “In all the surveys, people say they prefer the natural beauty of Tahoe,” allegedly being sullied by the sight of lakefront homes.

The remedy? A series of laws requiring the government to “score” the shorefront houses, penalizing “offending” features of an owner’s home. If the score is too low, the owner must change the home or be refused a building permit. The new controls essentially give veto power to the non-property-owning public over the design choices of lakefront homeowners.

A brown house might be deemed preferable to a white one, for instance, since a white house could be seen more easily by boaters looking from the lake to the shore. Large lakefront windows would lower the score; small windows, dark colored decks, or screens that cover large portions of the property, however, might raise the score.

These government regulations demand the sacrifice of the Tahoe property owner’s rights to the esthetic “preferences” of random strangers—for the sake of what? The Tahoe agency has not said that the appearance of these homes is any sort of a hazard to others. These regulations, for instance, are not akin to previous laws aimed at restricting pollution flowing from lakefront homes onto someone else’s property.

If the agency and some residents don’t like the looks of someone’s property, it must be changed. As the agency’s deputy director, Carl Hasty, declares, “There should not be a dominance of the landscape by buildings. Natural landscape should dominate.” Translation: Hasty’s esthetic opinions should dominate. This sort of power abuse is an inversion of the very purpose of government.

There is no such thing as the “right to a pleasing view.” If one owns property, one has the moral right to control it—even if that conflicts with the esthetic tastes of passersby. One has the right to acquire property, and once acquired, to use it without interference from others. Of course, an owner must not interfere with the rights of his neighbors to do likewise, but there is no moral basis for demanding that an owner alter his property to make the view more pleasing to an onlooker. Your life (and property) belong to you not to others.

The Declaration of Independence reminds us that it is only “to secure these rights,” that “governments are instituted among men.” A legitimate government agency would not try to “protect” the view—it would do all that it could to protect the property of homeowners from interference by tourists and neighbors who claim a view that they are unwilling or unable to pay for.

Ayn Rand identified the fact that “any alleged ‘right’ of one man, which necessitates the violation of the rights of another, is not and cannot be a right.” Nevertheless, “planning agencies” have sprung up in nearly every U.S. city in recent years, with every such agency “planning away” the rights of property owners in order to satisfy the preferences of others.

If homeowners can be told what color to paint their homes, how long will it be until all property rights are gutted? What principle will then prevent government agencies from telling you whether you can sell your property, to whom, and for how much? Or where you can buy a new home, and how large it can be? Or whether you can rent it, add a room, or change the landscape?

Sound farfetched? The gutting is already underway. In Washington, D.C., a landlord has to get permission from a tenant if he wants to sell his property to a new owner. This is a rule not just for big apartment complexes, but also for single-family homes. Near San Francisco certain homes designated as “affordable” can be sold for no more than a government-controlled price. In Portland there are wide swaths of the city in which you cannot build a single-family home on your own land, even if it is adjacent to other suburban homes.

In hundreds of U.S. cities, various laws establishing “historical districts,” “landmarks,” or “improvement zones” vex owners who are consequently unable to erect fences, change rain gutters, add rooms, or remove trees. These regulations are a major cause of soaring home prices. In San Diego it is estimated that such regulations are responsible for nearly 30 percent of the cost of a home (where median prices top $350,000)—effectively restricting who can buy a home, and where.

Emboldened by a lack of opposition from property owners, cities across the United States—from Seattle to Phoenix to Pittsburgh to Miami—are busy enacting equally onerous regulations of all kinds. Don’t believe that this controversy in Lake Tahoe is only the sacrifice of wealthy homeowners to tourists. That by itself is indeed appalling, but the actual meaning of the regulations is far wider: whether your property is yours or the government’s to control.

The authors of the Declaration of Independence warned about incursions on our rights, writing that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” In Lake Tahoe—and across America—the basic notion of the right to property is under attack. Now is the time for vigilance.

-Yaron Brook,

Ayn Rand Institute