Zoning Battle in League City

by Brian Phillips

In her essay “What Can One Do?” Ayn Rand writes:

Speak on any scale open to you, large or small–to your friends, your associates, your professional organizations, or any legitimate public forum. You can never tell when your words will reach the right mind at the right time.

HOS member Joe Reed recently demonstrated this in a simple, but effective way. League City, where Joe lives, has zoning. Home owners in his neighborhood were protesting a variance request by a nearby property owner. Joe wrote the following letter to a member of the Planning and Zoning Commission:

I am a homeowner in the Oak Creek subdivision. It has come to my attention that the owner of a piece of commercial property adjacent to my neighborhood, Mr. Tim Wood, is requesting a zoning variance (case number BP09-01R).

The purpose of the city government and its various departments should be the protection of property rights. Based on the information I have received on the matter, I believe the Planning and Zoning Commission is failing to perform this function. I believe that the property rights of Mr. Wood are being violated. Here’s why:

(1) Although I was not in attendance at the first hearing, I was told that the planning board received over 30 emails from homeowners in my subdivision, and that between 10-15 homeowners spoke to the commissioners at the meeting. According to the map I’ve seen, the property in question backs up to only two or three houses at the front of the Oak Creek subdivision. Assuming their argument was that they did not want to look over their back fence and see a warehouse (which I’ve been told is what Mr. Wood is building), I think it is wrong to allow homeowners who would not be directly affected to have a voice in the matter. For example, I received a flyer on my door requesting support against Mr. Wood’s plans (in addition to several emails), even though I live several blocks away from the property. Why should I (and the other 150 or so homeowners in the neighborhood) be able to keep Mr. Wood from building on his own land, when I wouldn’t even be able to see what he’s built? The opinions of those who are not even directly impacted by the variance request should be thrown out as irrelevant- no matter how many there are. The basic principle in question is property rights, and these should not be up for a vote.

(2) As for the two or three homeowners whose property is directly adjacent to the property in question, they should not be able to dictate what Mr. Wood can and cannot build on his own land, either. There is no inalienable right to an unobstructed view from one’s back door. They built houses at the edge of the neighborhood, next door to (at the time) undeveloped land. They cannot demand that the land remain untouched forever more. If they want to control what happens on the adjacent property, then they could/should purchase it. The true meaning of property rights is the right to use your own property as you see fit, and not to dictate to others how they should be allowed to use theirs.

(3) I learned (independently of the flyer and emails I received) that there is a potential issue with sewage service for the property in question. Apparently the property does not currently have access to a sewage system. As I understand the situation, this means that Mr. Wood would need to either build an on-site septic system, or tie into a nearby sewage system (i.e., Oak Creek’s). I’ve been told that these options are unacceptable to the various parties.

I have heard that some types of septic systems cause odors to the surrounding area that some find offensive. However, at this time, that is merely a potential problem, since no such system has yet been built on the property. Assuming that Mr. Wood builds such a system, and that it turns out to be unacceptable to the nearby neighbors, then there are existing nuisance laws on the books that can be used to deal with the situation if/when it actually exists. The point is that there must exist an actual- not a potential- nuisance before action can/should be taken. To block Mr. Wood’s plans at this time, based only on the potential for some future problem is just morally wrong. He should be perfectly free to build whatever type of septic system he wants to (and can afford). If he chooses now to build a system that will create a nuisance later, then he should be prepared to deal with nuisance law violations later- when they actually occur. If the costs of dealing with the problem later turn out to be unacceptable at that time, then too bad for him- let the fines begin! In any case, he should have the freedom to make those choices, and deal with the consequences. He should not have to beg for permission from the Commission, or the nearby homeowners, ahead of time.

As for the other option (tying into Oak Creek’s sewage line), that should be dealt with by direct negotiations between the property owner and Oak Creek (or whatever the name of the party that represents the actual owner of the land), independently of any zoning commission. Oak Creek owns the land through which the other property owner wants access (to tie into the sewage system). If Oak Creek determines that it does not want to provide access, then the other property owner is out of luck. If the other property owner cannot convince Oak Creek to allow access, then he must find another solution. If he cannot find another alternative solution, then again, too bad for him. He has no right to demand access, just as Oak Creek has no right to keep him from trying. If no agreement between the parties can be reached, so be it. One party or the other may walk away empty-handed, but no property rights have been violated in doing so.

Note that I am not in any way associated with Mr. Wood, and have in fact never met or had any contact with him. My arguments are based strictly on the moral premise that property rights are to be protected, not violated, by the government, and that they should never be determined by popular vote. The property owner has the moral right to use his property as he sees fit.

The Commission should fulfill its obligation to uphold the rights of property owners, and should therefore grant the request to Mr. Wood.

I am happy to report that Mr. Wood’s variance was granted. I suspect that Joe’s letter had more impact than we will ever know. As he told me prior to sending the letter, he was greatly outnumbered by his neighbors. Yet, despite the mass of people opposed to the variance, one rational, principled voice carried the day. Congratulations Joe.

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