The last straw hits the fan

Letter from Clay Warren

Local law – July 1995 – Colorado Central Magazine


I don’t know if it was the “growth” piece in your issue No. 16 that got me primed, but the Mountain Mail editorial of June 8, about how it’s not too late to Plan, was the last straw. I guess it’s fitting that the publisher of the Mail lives in Poncha Springs, the most government over-controlled town in the valley, because seeking wisdom from some planner from Kansas is like asking a monkey about physics. He knows nothing, but count on him to have an opinion anyway.

What’s the problem with planning? The short version is that it amounts to a “taking” of property by non-elected officials, and ought to be abolished yesterday. The same goes for the current system of building inspection.

I know that Chaffee County adopted one of the national codes, but I suggest that they ought to abandon it except for three areas: inspection of footings, electric system, and plumbing — including septic systems.

The gripes and complaints I’ve heard during the past two years concerning code enforcement are roughly ten times the combined total of the preceding ten years. Something big-time is wrong with the local system when everyone is griping about it.

What’s that got to do with growth? Try this on. The growth we’re facing has its biggest effect on the people who were already here and working for a living. The number-one problem listed in a recent survey was the lack of housing for families working for the average non-governmental wage around here.

So how do planning and zoning, and a rigorous enforcement of a highly debatable national building code help working people get a place to live? They don’t. In fact, they combine to make it harder. Want some examples?

The current code requires that a new dwelling be at least 800 square feet. Hell, the first ten years I was married we lived, eventually with one kid, in less space than that. What business is it of government to decide how much floor space my family and I require?

I’ll give you another example. The current code enforcement discriminates against “native” lumber. What is native lumber? It is the same rough-sawn two-by-four that holds up the roof of damned near every house built before World War II, and not a few of those built since. Suddenly that’s too weak?

The building code wants everything planed smooth to 1 5/8″ by 3 5/8″. In other words, graded lumber produced by a Lumber Association mill, rather than lumber produced by a local sawmill that might employ you or your neighbors.

Who wants this requirement, besides the Associated Mills? Supposedly, the lenders do. You know, the friendly folks who make a habit of lending money to those with regular corporate jobs that are substantially above minimum wage and offer good benefits, but who can’t find a dime if you want to build your own house on 40 acres. Real impartial judges of what you and I should be required to pay for, right?

I have a friend who has done sheet rock work in several states. He reckons that the first time he ever had a job inspected was in Salida, and then the building department had to come out three times before the owner could put covers on the switches and outlets.

Now for crying out loud! I’ve lived in more than forty houses and apartments, and have never seen a ceiling fall down or wall buckle because it didn’t have enough nails, or the tape-and-joint work wasn’t smooth enough.

People, this amounts to some empire-building by a local government bureaucracy, and we all pay for it, including those who need a building permit, or a place to live.

I’m going to give you my “Modest Solution” for solving our growth problems, and I guarantee that the planners, town officials, and county government will neither like nor appreciate it. But it will put some fairness back into the system, and more importantly, start getting the government’s nose out of places it really has no business being, such as wasting time on three inspections of a sheet rock job.

Let me start with a few premises. One, we all want to see open meadows full of hay, cows, horses, even the occasional flock of sheep. Two, the ranchers who own said fields ought not to be forced to sell out to real-estate developers because they can’t afford the taxes that would be levied on their productive agricultural lands if everyone were taxed equally. Three, said ranchers should be allowed to sell their property for an obscene profit if they choose to do so. It’s pretty easy to see that there are some conflicts inherent in these premises. Please remember you read it here first. The solution to subdividing our agricultural land is the Conversion Tax.

Here’s how it works. If you convert productive agricultural land to something else, like condos, ranchettes, subdivisions, etc., you pay a Conversion Tax. It is equal to the difference between the actual tax paid and the newly assessed tax on your Conversion for the preceding ten years. Productive agricultural land is herein defined as land on which a crop is grown, i.e., hay. Piñon-covered hillsides with some grazing are specifically excluded from the definition.

The funds derived from the Conversion Tax should be viewed as compensation to the community-at-large for not taxing agricultural lands at “fair market value,” a rate which would probably put every rancher in the county out of business. It would also help pay for various impacts that new developments have on those of us who were already here. It would be paid by the developer after his subdivision was approved.

I can hear some of you saying, “Now, hold on there. That is going to drive up the cost of land for new subdivisions.”

Well, isn’t the idea to control growth?

“Well,” you say, “what about those working people who can’t afford to pay the sky-high rents around here? That isn’t going to help them.”

Hold on, I’m getting to that.

I maintain that neither the county government, nor the lending institutions, have any right to tell Americans how we should live. If you want to put a tent, or a travel trailer, or an 8-foot-wide mobile home, or a bloody mansion on your land, that is your decision, not theirs. It is not a function of government to protect “property values,” in spite of a recent statement to the contrary by the Salida city administrator.

Nor is it government’s place to enforce the private prejudices of individuals. The real job of government is to protect people, not land values.

It’s pretty well established that the average cost per square foot in Chaffee County is high, especially given the rural nature of the place.

You can chalk some of that up to the trophy homes being built here recently, and some to that planed and graded lumber. At the same time, you can look at the cost of building permits and inspectors.

Time is money — that’s a clich, and a fact. The cost of building materials, nearly all of which are produced elsewhere, continues to rise in spite of the government inflation reports. The longer it takes to build, and the more difficult it is to accomplish something routine, the larger the bill at the end of the process. Building houses is no exception. The second element of the Modest Solution is thus to sharply restrict the building department and quit enforcing most of the national code, except as noted above.

The third element of the Modest Solution is to eliminate the income-tax deduction for second homes. I realize this is a federal matter, rather than local, but our representative, Scott McInnis, voted against such a proposal not that long ago, and he ought to be informed of the public’s view on the subject.

Why bother? Well, purchase and construction of second homes has helped fuel the shortage of rental housing, as well as pushed rents beyond the cost of the monthly payment for buying the place. Everyone who has ever struggled to buy a home knows that the most difficult step is accumulating the down payment. Once you have that in hand, a lot of doors open; without it, get lost. If someone has enough money to own two homes, he can pay his income taxes and quit increasing the purchase price for the rest of us.

The fourth part of the Modest Solution is to contain local governments and their planning-and-zoning boards. These non-elected, but well-meaning people serve at no pay and take considerable abuse in the stead of elected officials, who are quite happy to let them have it.

However, they are in essence “taking” property rights on land which does not belong to them, and I argue that the process is really unconstitutional.

Let me point to an example. We recently lost a nice clean business which would have provided a few jobs for high-school graduates. It would have been located near the county landfill and it would have been a credit to the community, along with serving a useful purpose.

We currently help fund someone whose job is economic development. Only a few years ago, the county commissioners would have fallen all over themselves trying to help a guy build a nice business near the county dump, and probably our economic development officer would have helped push the process forward.

However, the land in question got “zoned” as agricultural by the board in the meantime. That meant that the whole time frame got stretched out by the consideration of rezoning. This, in the face of the fact that there are various commercial operations nearby in both directions along the highway.

However, some non-elected panel decided that that particular patch of mouse pasture was agricultural, and therefore sacrosanct with regard to truss building. The real-world result was that time is money, and the business went elsewhere.

Had this business posed a danger to its neighbors, the county commissioners would have had a duty to protect the people threatened. However, the whole sequence amounts to a “taking” of the lawful use of the land from its owner. Furthermore in this case, it was done by non-elected officials who answer to the commissioners, but not directly to the people.

This isn’t right. It may be lawful at the moment, but it still isn’t right. And it helps fuel growth.

“What the hell did you just say?”

Yes, it fuels growth. It puts money in the pockets of real-estate developers and makes it harder for people who work for a living to find a place to live. Many of the people “growing” here want to protect the investments they’ve made in real estate. They are accustomed to using zoning and covenants as weapons to keep out the unwashed, as well as businesses which do not serve their particular needs.

So, make covenants illegal. Would you build a $200,000 second home if you thought I might put my 35’x8′ mobile home on the lot next door?

The fifth element of the Modest Solution is pestilence. We need to make it known, and I suggest a state publicity board for this purpose, that every water supply in the county has giardia in its headwaters. Plague infests our rodents, and hantavirus lurks in every one of those mouse pastures. I won’t elaborate; this approach speaks for itself.

Let me summarize the Modest Solution to growth. We abolish zoning, including private covenants, unless a proposed activity harms its neighbors. I’ll include noise, traffic, light levels, etc., as harmful activities.

Then we dismiss all planning-and-zoning boards, for being both unconstitutional and unnecessary. We eliminate the current building code, except for foundations, electrical, and plumbing. Buyers will know that their new house won’t burn down because of bad wiring and that their water supply won’t recycle … well, we won’t get into that.

The houses may be ugly but cozy. We won’t be hypocritical hair-splitters. If we don’t own it, then it isn’t ours to decide what to do with it.

Last, if it grows food, we’ll all help protect that use. But if you want to make money doing something else with the land, then you have to play by the same tax rules the rest of us do, and you get to pay for the privilege of impacting our lives and institutions.

That ought to take care of growth for a while, and we’re likely to lose a few real-estate agents in the process.

Growth: What’s the problem?

Clay Warren

Pseudonymous in Poncha Springs