Property rights stop (and start) at the property line

Published 12:57 pm Tuesday, May 31, 2022

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We live in a time when nearly all of us feel over-regulated by some ‘higher’ authority when it comes to what we can or cannot do on our land. Those of you who live in municipalities with zoning that mandates where you can build your workshop or how far your front porch has to be from the sidewalk know exactly what I’m talking about. Those of us who live in the country have more freedom, except when it comes to land uses that might cause environmental damage.


The bottom line is that our property rights do stop at our property line. That means that what we do on our land cannot (or should not) affect someone else’s property. If I plow too close to the stream bank or let the ponies dig in the stream, with the result being that a lot of silt runs downstream into Camp Creek, then I have crossed over my own property line and have infringed upon the rights of the folks downstream. To prevent that, local, state, and federal agencies have come up with hundreds of rules telling landowners what they can and cannot do. Personally, I would rather have fewer rules and give landowners credit for knowing that water runs downhill and takes whatever is loose with it – sand, trash, chemicals, manure, toxins, etc. (even 7-year-old Lucy knows that!) – but unfortunately, history has proven that many landowners really don’t care about the consequences of their actions. Is it ignorance, laziness, or lack of caring about anyone else? Your guess is as good as mine.

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The flip side of this is that your responsibilities start at your property line. It is against the law to damage someone else’s property, but it is the responsibility of the “harmed party” to bring charges against the landowner who caused the problem. None of us like doing that, so we’ve figured out a way to put that responsibility on public officials who will (hopefully) make the perpetrator remedy the situation. 


That’s nearly impossible after the damage has been done. If you need an example, just look at Chocolate Drop Mountain. The people who caused the side of the mountain to slide off and fill the lake downstream with sediment are happily living in Texas, and the lake will never be the same again. The people who bought those Chocolate Drop lots were left with the mess, and the people who caused the problem are long gone.


Yes, we hate regulations, but a requirement for approval for any road building or earthmoving on those steep slopes by an environmental engineer would have prevented that disaster. The county officials voted against that regulation! Thankfully, in this situation, the Polk County community and some of the Chocolate Drop lot owners, with help from the Polk County Community Foundation, bonded together to create a 46-acre nature park at the top of the mountain. That mistake will never happen again, at least not on that site.

As the earth gets more and more crowded with people, how to take good care of our natural environment gets more and more complicated. The wide-open spaces of yesteryear are nearly all gone. Now we are the stewards of the land, much of it plagued by invasive species and instability caused by irresponsible landowners before us. Even if it is not easy, it is our responsibility to take care of it as best we can.


It’s almost like rights and responsibilities are simply two sides of the same coin.