Mr. Reed is a technical writer in Portland, Oregon.
“. . .the freedom to use private property ends at the property line.”
—Benjamin A. Rogge
The noisy chatter of chain saws and the crack-thud of tall trees being felled had been going on for a full week and was getting nearer to my back property line every day. My neighbors lived across the road to the east and next-door to the south. To the north was an empty parcel of acreage owned by the water bureau. The back of my house (and all my next-door neighbors’ house) faced west, gazing contentedly at almost 100 acres of verdant whispering-pine forest.
The trees offered an early respite from the seating heat of the setting afternoon sun, and brought cool, peacefully quiet summer evenings. But now that someone was cutting down those trees, the seclusion and idyllic evenings were in danger of extinction.
This eventuality evoked a singular question from neighbors and friends: “What can we do?” I found it immensely intriguing that the unanimous solution they proposed was to forcefully stop the owner of the trees from cutting them down.
Phone calls buzzed back and forth. My next-door neighbor called, asking in frantic tones, “What can we do? Can’t we call the Sierra Club or some government agency?” A visiting friend, sitting on the deck and looking out at what remained of the trees, shook his head and complained that this despoilier of the forest should be stopped.
All these reactions endorsed the use of some coercive means to stop the owner of the trees from doing as he wished with his own property. This caused me to ponder some of the motives behind these reactions and to seek a more creative answer—a peaceful, noncoercive solution.
The Cutting Continues
For some time, I could only hear the chain saws. Soon, however, the loggers could be seen tight at the property line, felling huge trees that shook the ground as they hit.
That day, about mid-afternoon, I moseyed down to the fence line and caught the attention of one of the loggers. I asked him if the property had been sold. He replied that only the trees had been sold and they were being cut down for mill processing. He said that if they weren’t cut down now they would be past their prime for use as lumber.
At this point, I should explain that the owner of this forest property had put it up for sale in ten-acre parcels about a year before the first chain saw whipcord was pulled. During that time, none of the property had been sold. I surmised that since the owner couldn’t sell the property as he had originally intended, he either wanted, or needed, to at least get value out of the trees.
After pondering the reactions of my neighbors, it occurred to me that what they were complaining about was the loss of a perceived benefit they had been receiving from the tall, magnificent pines growing behind their houses. These trees provided them with shade, privacy, and the aesthetic pleasure of a verdant view. But the problem with their complaints, I concluded, was that they had been receiving all these benefits for free. These benefits were the result of another property owner’s decision to keep the trees on his property rather than build houses, turn the property into pasture, or put it to some other use.
It didn’t occur to my neighbors that their own property had once been tree-covered—just like the property behind them—and that at some time, the decision had been made to cut the trees down and put it to another use. But now that they were using their own land just as they wished, they were (incomprehensibly, to me) proposing to tell another property owner that he couldn’t do as he wished with his property.
As Bernard Siegan has observed, “Everyone wants to live under optimum conditions, and one means to that end is to control the use of other people’s property.” It was readily apparent that “control” certainly was the issue here.
As I continued my research, I discovered and formulated a few noncoercive approaches these folks might have used to allow them to live under optimal conditions and still protect the perceived benefits of having the trees at their back doors.
An Initial Approach
As I mentioned before, the owner of the forest had placed the property up for sale earlier in the year. At that time, I read this as a signal that it might be prudent to place a bid on a piece of this property to ensure myself of a small remnant of privacy in the event that the entire area were sold for building lots.
Again, the original offer was for ten-acre parcels. However, I could afford to bid on only two acres. Decisively, I placed a counteroffer and, just as decisively, was turned down. I never determined whether the owner chose to sell in only ten-acre lots, or whether county zoning regulations forced him to sell in those quantities, but the bottom line was that this avenue was closed.
However, this was one way in which my neighbors could have protected their interests without interfering with anyone else’s affairs. But, as far as I know, not one of them offered to buy any of this property when it was for sale. They wanted to keep the benefits of having the forest, but they weren’t willing to pay for them. Their only solution was somehow to prevent the owner from taking away what didn’t belong to them in the first place.
Now, suppose that my neighbors were in the same situation that I was, and they couldn’t afford to bid individually on the ten-acre parcels.
Another solution would have been the use of restrictive covenants. These covenants “. . . usually govern architectural requirements, cost of construction, aesthetics, and maintenance.” However, to “. . . completely control an area by restrictive covenants where none exist requires an agreement by every owner, since only the properties of those who sign are bound.” But, as architect John Gillis points out, while it is true that restrictive covenants are most easily applied in new neighborhoods where requirements can be agreed upon from the beginning of development, “. . . some measures can be taken in an existing area. A property association can be formed, and members can agree to abide by certain limits . . . .” Of course, he says, there may be a few holdouts, but “If the agreeing landowners feel strongly enough, they can offer to purchase the few holdouts, so that deed covenants can be added to those properties. Then they can resell the property to a new owner. Another option is to ignore the few holdouts for the time being, since most of the neighbors have agreed on a certain set of conditions.
Then as the few holdouts come up for sale over the years, the association can bid on them and slowly complete the process of protection.” In this case, perhaps I, and my concerned neighbors, could have combined our assets and co-owned a ten-acre parcel of land with a mutual agreement to preserve the trees.
Finally, if none of these solutions to preserve the trees was satisfactory, the individual property owners could have planted a row of trees at the back of their property as a kind of “privacy curtain.” This would directly put their money where their perceived benefits were.
While it is beyond the scope of this essay to compile an exhaustive catalog of solutions to the myriad issues that surround the concept of private property, the key to each of my proposed solutions is that they are consistent “. . . with the ideals of a free society in which people should be able to do as they please unless their acts clearly harm or interfere with the liberties of others.”
This statement can be further distilled into a Confucian maxim that Leonard Read frequently emphasized, a phrase that I consider to be the essence of the freedom philosophy: “Do not unto others that which you would not have them do unto you.” When this philosophy is consistently applied, freedom expands as all individuals are free to act peacefully and creatively without “neighborly” coercion. And as this philosophy is consistently appropriate to other areas and actions in life, it is just as appropriate when it comes to private property and creating peaceful answers to the question, “What can we do?”
At last the day came when all the trees were gone. Where I once had shade for my deck beginning in late afternoon, I now had the glaring solar heat beating down until well past eight in the evening.
O.K., I thought, so now what? Then, one day as I gazed out over the now clear-cut acreage, the wise words of Alexander Graham Bell came back to me from somewhere over the barren horizon. “When one door closes,” I could almost hear him gently saying, “another opens, but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.”
In this moment of enlightenment, I created my own peaceful solution: I decided to purchase an awning. Soon it was installed in all its glory. In addition to being colorfully striped and enhancing the appearance of the house, the awning shaded the deck for the entire afternoon when the sun was fiercely blazing overhead. And when the sun finally dipped below the horizon, I discovered the secret that the tall trees had been keeping: swirling vermillion and neon-tangerine sunsets that were splashed, as if by some heavenly impressionist, across the canvas of the turquoise-fading-to-violet evening sky. Another door truly had opened.
Interestingly enough, after all the initial comments from my neighbors, no one actually did anything at all. As economists know, everything has a cost attached to it. This includes the time, money, and energy it takes to implement coercive proposals. I’m thankful that my neighbors, for whatever reason, found the costs too high.
A few weeks later, I glanced out my back window and saw about a dozen people walking on the clear-cut land in the distance. They would walk a few steps, bend down, walk another few steps, bend down, and repeat the process. Out came the binoculars. With their assistance, I could immediately see what these people were doing.
I smiled and wondered what my friend would say when he learned that his “despoiler of the forest” was planting new trees.