Local Utah government should respect property rights

This op-ed was recently published in the Deseret News.

No one wants to live next to a public dumpster. They smell bad, look atrocious and can probably decrease their property’s value. This is why cities have written laws to enforce standards for homes (and front yards). But many of these laws go a step too far.

City ordinances often regulate the looks of one’s property, such as banning individuals from keeping trash or old cars and metal scraps in their front yard. Some of the laws are more extreme, regulating the type of foliage that can be grown and how high they can grow.

Over time, these local laws have extended to regulate not only exterior property, but also the type and number of pets one can own, and even the activity that goes on inside the home, such as business activity and short-term room rentals. While these laws are typically passed with good intentions in order to keep people from experiencing harm from a select few problematic residents, they end up restricting the freedom for homeowners to utilize their property as they wish, provided they bother no one.

Sen. Lincoln Fillmore is sponsoring SB107 in order to keep the peace without trampling over individuals property rights — allowing homeowners more freedom and flexibility.

“Just because something is a law, doesn’t mean that it’s right.” These are the words of Stephen and Karina Palmer of St. George, Utah. The Palmers rented out part of their home through Airbnb to tourists and travelers. For them, it was a good way to supplement their income without having to sacrifice much. The city had never received a complaint about their rental, and had a good experience doing it — but it didn’t last long. The Palmers were shocked to receive a cease-and-desist order from the city of St. George, informing them that they were breaking the law by renting out their home, and if they didn’t stop, the consequences would be severe.

The Palmers were among over 200 other St. George residents who were punished for violating the short-term rental code within the past five years. Although St.George may penalize its residents more frequently than other cities, other cities usually substantially restrict individuals from renting their homes for short periods of time.

Many of these laws were passed in order to ensure residents wouldn’t have to deal with disruptive party houses causing problems for nearby residents. But by implementing blanket bans on activity that isn’t inherently harmful or bothersome, local governments have effectively curbed the ability of homeowners to peacefully use their own property as they wish.

Localities already have general nuisance laws in place to address and penalize the possible negative symptoms that could arise from short-term rentals, such as noise, sight or smell. If renters aren’t harming anyone, than why should they be banned? This same principle follows for most property regulations — from animal restrictions to grass coverage requirements. If harmful actions do arise, neighbors can easily and anonymously report the nuisance violations to city officials who will send law enforcement officers to take care of the problem.

SB107 helps restore this balance to make sure that arbitrary city ordinances get revised promptly to identify actual harms, and focus enforcement only on those negative results. Municipalities would have to prove that the use of an individual’s property constitutes an actual negative impact, such as noise. This would stop local code enforcement officers from arbitrarily penalizing individuals for utilizing their property. In effect, this law would raise the standards to ensure an actual problem is occurring before anyone is fined or criminalized.

Cedar City has recently implemented a similar concept with a law in regards to animal ordinances, but with higher standards for penalization. Now, if animals aren’t being a nuisance to anyone, residents can own as many dogs and cats as they like. However, if the animals do become a noticeable problem, and three violations occur, then code enforcers can criminally punish and force the rules on pet ownership. This strikes a better balance than simply arbitrarily restricting a homeowner’s activity.

Property rights are a fundamental freedom that we are entitled to under the Utah Constitution. Local governments should respect these rights and only penalize those who have created an actual nuisance problem for their neighbors. If their actions aren’t harming anyone, let’s leave them alone so they can peacefully use their property as they see fit.