Denying property rights should be hard to do

Published 10:16 pm Thursday, June 26, 2014

By Roger Leonard

I read and saw the city council struggle with a new development on Bridge Road recently, and must admit that I agreed with the stalemate and process that unfolded that night.

Some might say that the project should be turned away, as “we don’t need more apartments in that area.” Nor, they suggest, should we allow property owners the right to use their property in such a way.

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But the suggestion that I know better what should happen with your property than you do is always a dangerous claim and one fraught with failure and issues.

When government strips the prerogative of a property owner, it should always be a hard-fought decision and must express a clear and overriding public need. It boils down to the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few.

Overall, I do agree that a thriving community should and must follow beneficial planning processes. I do so as a senior federal planner every day. However, in such efforts under law to control zoning and land-uses, the governing body or administrator must also respect the prerogative and plan of the property owner.

Not to say they should rubber-stamp anything put before them, even from other appointed officials, but to think it through and come up with approval or a good reason why not is imperative.

Urban planning is always about compromise. For example, central planning failed the Soviet-System and will always fail us, when given rein.

Such planning and approval protocols and intervention by government, who will always say they have the best idea, should be approached with skepticism and a large dose of humility. It must be noted: The people are not skeptical enough, unless it is their property, and humility among those in government is almost always lacking.

This is where we see bad decisions masquerading as good law and policy, and where the system fails us all, by stripping property owners of their rights and prerogatives.

So zoning and land-use and development laws that purport to control property are not a panacea. They can get it wrong and often do.

In our representative democracy, it is always important to negotiate the process. Telling property owners that they cannot use their property for some proposed use or as they see fit must be measured and done with as much thought as it takes.

That is why it should be hard for council to make some of these decisions and why it can be a convoluted process, with conflicting outcomes or even stalemate. Sometimes more review caused by a stalemate is the price we pay for a better decision.

Roger Leonard is from Suffolk. Email him at