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Montana Viewpoint
PROPERTY RIGHTS AND WRONGS

October 17, 2005

“If your want to control the neighborhood, you better buy it.” That was the philosophy my dad developed after passing up a chance to buy an adjoining parcel of land uphill from our farm. It was developed into a subdivision called “Farmview Acres”; we were the farm, they were our view.

I’ve come to believe that for a lot of landowners “property rights” means having the right to do what you want with your own property, plus the right to tell your neighbor what to do with his. Having a neighbor who feels the same way can create quite a confrontation, but at least there’s the satisfaction of knowing that you’re in total agreement on that aspect of the issue.

Outside of trespass and boundary disputes, the Montana equivalent of the Hatfield-McCoy feud seems to start when folks get a new neighbor with a different idea of beauty than theirs. This can lead to conflict, especially if their property is outside the picture window and the one neighbor is, say, a tad careless about the appearance of his place.

Sometimes the neighbor in question will be a recent immigrant to the neighborhood who brings an outdoor museum of valuable artifacts into your life, but it generally seems to happen the other way around, when a purchaser with stars in his eyes buys a lot next to such an outdoor museum. When the sun rises and the stars disappear to reveal the neighbor’s hog wallow and refrigerator collection, there is a despair followed by a self-righteous anger, and a demand that the neighbor clean up his act; never mind that the untidy neighbor has been there forever.

In any case, no matter what the individual history of the issue, there is a conflict that needs to be dealt with, and most often it gets placed in the lap of elected officials for resolution. The elected officials then get to decide which party they want mad at them.

Differences in cultural viewpoints aside, there’s really a bigger issue at stake here. The single largest investment most people make is in their home. It is also, for many people, an investment that they intend to turn over for a profit, either for retirement income or for economic gain. If a neighbor’s actions—be it an individual or a government—devalue that property, there is a serious personal economic issue involved.

A person does have the right to preserve and protect his economic well-being, and frankly, a neighbor needs to respect that and to take into consideration how his actions will affect it. This is one aspect of what we call “community,” and it pits the concepts of individual freedoms and community responsibility against one another. It is serious business, and it’s where we trade some of our individual independence to maintain our economic stability.

When we were simply a state of ranchers, miners, and loggers, we valued the land more for what it could produce rather than its potential appreciation, and it was priced accordingly. Now, people with the wisdom to buy a piece of heaven have bid land prices in Montana’s scenic valleys sky high. Now we are talking real money.

Planning and zoning take away some of our property rights, but they do protect the economic value of our land. If everyone was a good neighbor (and all mine are, thanks be), we wouldn’t need to worry about such things. But we are worrying over them, and we may have to be willing to think about accepting some individual restrictions to preserve the value of our property.

Or, we could just buy the neighborhood.

When the proverbial drunken sailor emptied his pocketbook, the fun was done. Now, he’s got a credit card.

Jim Elliott
Phone: 406-444-1556
Mail: State Senate Helena, MT 59620

jim@jimelliott.org