Every now and then a government proposal takes on such a vigorous life of its own that its intent gets clouded, those supporting it — or just discussing it even-handedly — get tarred and feathered and what started as an honest effort to do something worthwhile just blows up.
Such was the case with the proposed nuisance ordinance Haywood commissioners and their planning board abandoned last week. In the end, even what was good and right about this proposal just got lost in the noise.
The ordinance started out as an attempt to protect public health and clean up some of the junk that accumulates on private property. Cleaning up junk and protecting public health are, in almost all cases, admirable goals. The ordinance would have regulated items like open sewage, refuse, old swimming pools, garbage, junked vehicles and such. It’s intent was to prevent injuries, get rid of junk and abandoned manufactured homes and to “abate public nuisances.”
As a citizen of Haywood County, I don’t have a problem with this proposal. In plain English, the law was trying to get people to keep their old stuff from causing health hazards or looking just plain ugly.
But therein lies the problem. This ordinance, stripped of all the lawyer-speak, in essence would have codified a subjective opinion — the opinion of planners and commissioners, one would assume — as to what was unsightly, unhealthy, or, in the words of the proposal, a “public nuisance.”
As has happened time and again in counties and towns throughout these mountains, opposition mounted as the debate took a detour from the merits of the proposal to a broad fight against the erosion of property rights. The wording of this particular proposal invited protest. “The following are hereby expressly declared to be public nuisances,” it read, and went on to say “outdoor storage of .... all-terrain vehicles, toys, bicycles, ....”
County board Chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick explained that these references needed to be taken in context to public health and safety, but it didn’t matter. County commissioners and planners had no choice but to toss out the proposal. If there were supporters who thought a re-wording might make this law more palatable, they didn’t show up. From any objective measure of public opinion, the majority of Haywood citizens were against this measure, vehemently against it. And so commissioners struck it down, as they should have.
What was disappointing in this whole affair?
Well, there was the treatment of officials on the planning board and county board. Everyone has a right to get emotional in their opposition to laws they don’t support. That’s the American way, as many have said.
But to say commissioners or supporters of this ordinance aren’t adhering to the Constitution or are somehow less than patriotic is pure bluster. Trust me, there are much more stringent ordinances in many places in this country that have withstood legal challenges. Nothing at all in this proposal was unconstitutional. Bareknuckle politics are fine, but the argument should remain against the policy proposed, not the people who might feel differently about it than you.
In addition to the petty name calling and cussing, also bothersome in this debate was the way stereotypes were tossed around as if they really mean anything. Outsiders were for it, locals were against it. Rich people were for it, working class folks against it. Conservatives against it, liberals for it. This is akin to the blather from the television and radio blowhards on both the left and right who are so quick to pigeonhole those they don’t agree with and take the easy way out of a real debate on the merits of a proposal.
Of course the good part of this episode has been the real, community debate that has taken place. Many great points have been raised. It’s been a real civics lesson for the community, messy and sometimes ugly as it was.
And the continued participation in civic affairs of this new group — We the People — can only serve to bring attention to the important issues the county board, planners and municipal officials will be discussing in the near future. Too often we in the media sit in empty meeting rooms and write stories about what we think are important issues but that no one else seems to care about. This proposal shows that people do care and that they want to be engaged in the process, and that will make for good government in the long run.
That’s a pretty damn good outcome, and it’s a good bet one active citizen group will beget another that feels a little differently. Do you think, heaven forbid, that the majority of the citizenry will actually start taking an active role in shaping the affairs of the community in which they live? Wake me up, I must be dreaming.