Paul Jacob

Certain common problems need governmental solutions. But not common-as-dirt problems — commonly shared problems. We share in the problem of crime. So we share in the burden of government. But we do not share, in the same way, the problem of corpulence. Everyone has his own cross to bear, and one of them might be a gut jutting out 13 inches beyond the belt line. That’s a problem. But my gut is mine, your gut is yours, and that is the way it should be.

Not knowing when to butt out can be a problem, sometimes, I’ll admit. And yet governments routinely side with some people against others, encouraging all of us to get far too uppity. And uppity people tend not to mind their own business.

Case in point: Dale and Spencer Bell, father and son in rural Arizona, started a restaurant called San Tan Flat. The government was involved from the get-go. They had to get a permit. And they got it. OK so far — but it goes further.

Now, if you watched Drew Carey’s reason.tv segment on this, you know the story. One neighbor adjacent to the establishment expressed grave concern. He raised objections, and after the permit for the place was given, he asked the Bells if they could be a little courteous to his beekeeping biz, not be too loud, shine too many lights, etc.

So the restaurant goes up, and country music and outdoor barbecues hit the atmosphere, and . . . the neighbor talking in front of reason.tv’s cameras was just fine with it all. The impact was much less than he feared. And he liked having a restaurant in the area.

But someone didn’t. Someone complained about the noise. And the county council got involved.

They set a noise standard more stringent than for anyone else in the county. And they went a step further. The local politicians said the restaurant must not do one thing, it must not allow dancing.

But, it turns out, people like to dance. Especially at a neat outdoors joint like San Tan Flat.

County officials conducted what they called the longest “code compliance hearing” in the county’s history to decide how much the fine should be. Result? They want to fine San Tan $5,000 a day for letting customers dance.

Dale Bell is fighting it. If people want to dance, let them dance. That’s his motto.

And, for the life of me I can’t see how that shouldn’t be the local government’s motto. Dancing may offend some and, frankly, I do not want to watch most people dance. But those aren’t real problems. Anti-dancing puritans don’t need to enter the walled outdoor environs of the San Tan Flat Restaurant, and I can shade my eyes from the jigglings of the overweight Mississippian.

I only need to mind my own business. Which is what the local government should be doing, too.

But shouldn’t we use government to protect ourselves from nuisances?

Well, I guess so. Within limits. I mean, slippery slope: give politicians and busybodies a say in what you may do on your property, and pretty soon there’s not much you can do on your property.

Take merry ol’ England. Once a place of freedom, now it appears to be overrun by nosey police and tyrannical regulators.

Consider, in particular, building permit requirements that go so far as to micromanage home style and placement. And consider what Robert Fidler decided to do to get around those laws. Before building on his property, he erected massive, 40-foot high haystacks.

The haystacks, covered with tarps and old tires, were ugly.

Yet no one complained.

The people near Honeycrock Farm, Salfords, Redhill, Surrey, knew that Robert Fidler was building something behind his haystacks. But, maybe because they were, at heart, good British people, they said nothing.

But what Fidler had built behind the stacks of hay was a mock Tudor mansion, complete with cannons and turrets and such.

Tastes differ as to its beauty, but hey: it was a lot better than hay.

After building it for two years, he and his family lived in it for four. Without telling anybody.

And then Fidler tore down the haystacks.

And came trouble.

Fidler thought that he had gotten around the local planning laws by living in his structure for four years without complaint. Too bad, then, that the Reigate and Banstead Council says that rule is void — because nobody had been given a chance to see it.

They had seen ugly haystacks, instead. For six years.

Now, you probably thought that zoning laws and building codes were there to protect neighbors. But the neighbors expressed no complaints about ugly haystacks under blue tarp. A nice house in olden style? Why complain about that?

Well, some did. Mainly petty complaints, of the “Why shouldn’t Fidler have to go through the same Kafkaesque nightmare we did?” variety.

I guess they didn’t appreciate the cleverness of the ploy.

Not so clever, however, that Fidler has much chance of being allowed to keep his house. Too bad.

Fidler’s gambit proved something about zoning and building-permission laws. Much of it is just prejudice and intolerance and busybodyism. If a community could tolerate ugly haystacks, it can tolerate a mock-Tudor mansion. And should.

And if haystacks covered with blue tarpaulin and old car tires meet the muster of law and public opinion, then any old ramshackle house — or modernist monstrosity — you select to build should be tolerated, too.

Look, I don’t reach for my spritzer if you go to the 7-Eleven in dirty cut-offs and two-days late on a shower. And I don’t expect you to take out your comb and clippers when you see my latest haircut. The personal courtesies we extend each other should be more broadly honored.

And forced on politicians.

Really, we’ll all get along much better when we mind our own business.


Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.