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Property rights are not absolute

Property rights are not absolute

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Few things get a property owner more upset than someone telling him he can't do what he wants with his land.

If you own a farm and the government piles regulations on you that restrict your business, it's likely to make your blood boil. Why should a bird or a frog tell me I can't build a building or plant a field?

If you own a home in a city or suburb you're likely to have a lot of restrictions too about whether you can put another story on top of your garage, or even build a new garage. Permits and approvals can be expensive and time consuming.

But you probably appreciate that someone can't move in and build a sewer plant next door. You might be grateful that someone can't dam the river upstream your farm depends on, or where you like to catch trout.

I grew up in a former farmhouse that was over 200 years old. One summer, my dad and I started digging out in the backyard. We found antique bottles, leather shoes and rusted cans. It was exciting for a little kid to find history in the ground. It was there because people used to throw their trash in the backyard.

In rural areas with few people for miles, it was normal 100 years ago. If you live in a suburb with 1/8-acre lots, now you might feel differently. You might also be worried if you bought a home where the mechanic just tossed his motor oil out back. You'd be even more worried if your little kids had to drink water from a well next door to that mechanic.

There aren't many rights that are absolute, and for good reason, because what we do affects other people. You have a near absolute right in America to free speech but you can't yell "fire" in a crowded theater. You can't write something clearly false and awful about someone in the paper and not have a chance to get sued.

So, we need to talk about a right that has limits, and then talk about what those limits should be. We have a lot of national parks in the U.S. Lots of people would like to mine the land beneath them, or cut their trees. But lots of other people would like to be able to hike or camp or walk in natural places too. Those visits generate jobs and support livelihoods just like mining and logging.

In Napa Valley, where I lived for 10 years, we're starting to have more conflict about development vs. preservation. In my new home in Silicon Valley, orchards all turned into apartments, offices and strip malls. Yet a few insightful people found ways to preserve the hills.

Commercial pressure is relentless. Do we say 'anything goes'? Soon there won't be any place without grapes, until all the wells go dry. The wineries will then just be bars and restaurants instead of hillsides and vineyards.

Why can't we talk about balance? I'd rather not have to get approval for the color I paint my door, and I'd rather not see my neighbor start a nightclub on my street. Between those extremes, can we then start to have a civil conversation?

Adam Pease

San Jose

Pop the cork on Napa Valley wine!

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