The Miami Herald reports that a local couple is going all the way to the state supreme court to fight a local ordinance banning front-yard vegetable gardens:
Hermine Ricketts and her husband Tom Carroll may grow fruit trees and flowers in the front yard of their Miami Shores house…
Vegetables, however, are not allowed.
Ricketts and Carroll thought they were gardeners when they grew tomatoes, beets, scallions, spinach, kale and multiple varieties of Asian cabbage. But according to a village ordinance that restricts edible plants to backyards only, they were actually criminals.
“That’s what government does – interferes in people’s lives,” Ricketts said. “We had that garden for 17 years. We ate fresh meals every day from that garden. Since the village stepped its big foot in it, they have ruined our garden and my health.”
These sorts of stories pop up several times a year. They are often discussed at free-market oriented and libertarian sites to illustrate just the myriad of ways that the state interferes in our daily lives. Many times, they intervene to prohibit totally innocuous activities like growing a front-yard garden.
What articles like these often fail to point out of course, is that these laws didn’t appear out of nowhere. They are often passed because some voters demanded the city council or the county commission pass laws prohibiting front-yard gardens, or backyard chicken coops, or other non-violent activities deemed by some to be a nuisance to the neighborhood. These laws then persist over time because the majority of voters either agree with the laws, or don’t feel strongly enough about the matter to demand a change.
In Miami Shores, the law against front-yard gardens was likely passed because at least a few people felt that front yard gardens were not so innocuous after all.
This situation illustrates, yet again, a problem with majoritarian government. If a majority of the citizens of Miami Shores — or whatever jurisdiction — hate front-yard gardens, then they likely to vote for candidates who will vote to ban them. The minority, of course, is simply out of luck.
The implied solution in many of these free-market publications is that government should just get out of the business of regulating front yards. OK. But then people will begin to ask the inevitable questions:
- Should people be able to just dump garbage in their front yards then?
- Can they park a food truck there 24-hours a day and sell hamburgers out of them?
- Can they put in their front yards a 20-foot sculpture of a jackalope?
If the response is “of course not” then the next question is “why not?” or “so what is prohibited in front yards?” If a pile of old appliances is not acceptable in the front yard, why is a vegetable garden acceptable? What if many people think gardens are nearly as unsightly as an old car on blocks?
You can probably figure out where this leads. We’re right back at regulating what people can do in their front yards.
Indeed, when Ricketts laments that “government interferes in people’s lives” in response to the ban on her garden, one wonders if she’d be equally libertarian if her neighbors had piles of junk cars in their front yards.
So, is there no solution here? Must we choose between bans on gardens on the one side, and piles of garbage on the other?
The solution, of course, lies in decentralization and privatization.
The Role of the Homeowners Association
Were local governments to totally abandon all regulations on neighborhood aesthetics, it’s easy to imagine what would happen next.1 Assuming, of course, that they were unable to convince local governments to ban allegedly “unsightly” features like front-yard gardens, those who hate the veggie gardens would then seek a solution in private homeowners associations.2
Those who want to be surrounded by neighbors who only plant nicely manicured lawns can have it — provided they find others willing to enter into a private agreement banning front-yard gardens.
And this is exactly what many people do when they choose to move to covenant-controlled communities where they believe their “property values” will be protected by private agreements banning unsightly features to front yards or houses.
People like to complain about their homeowners associations, of course, but there’s a reason they aren’t going away. The homeowner agreements don’t actually deter a large number of people from purchasing homes in those communities. Thus, the developers who sell houses there have little reason to believe consumers want a more laissez-faire neighborhood. Many residents actually like knowing that the local association won’t tolerate a weed-filled front yard or an old car up on blocks in the driveway.
This is why the homeowners association became widespread in the first place:
These developments were often more self-contained than the large-scale communities in that they maintained stricter standards regarding the appearance of the homes (both the structures and the landscaping). The general idea was that people who were looking for certain amenities (whether restrictions on pets or rules governing hedge planting) would be drawn to these communities; those who sought other amenities would look at other developments.
Some homeowners association are more strict than others, but most are far more strict than the local municipal governments. Indeed, those who want front-yard gardens will probably find it easier to find a municipal government that tolerates them, than a private homeowners association. Finding a homeowners association that allows chicken coops is probably even harder. Many municipal governments, on the other hand, allow them.
Decentralization Is the Key
A second option — decentralization — can achieve a similar result.
Imagine, for instance, that Ricketts convinced a group of people on her side of town to form a secessionist neighborhood that was able to separate from the city of Miami Shores. It became West Miami Shores.
The Ricketts and their neighbors would then get to have their front-yard gardens. This would also be good for the residents in Old Miami Shores. When potential new residents come looking around to buy a house in Old Miami Shores, the anti-garden people can simply say “you want a front-yard garden? Don’t move here, move over there.”
Yes, it’s true that some residents in both areas will then have to move if they want to live in a neighborhood that favors their particular views on front-yard gardens. But at least now both groups have the option of getting what they want.
In the absence of either of these options, we’re only left with a situation in which the majority can run untrammeled over a minority, and the minority has no escape.
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