Loving your neighbor in Inver Grove Heights

Last week the Inver Grove Heights City Council met to hear from the public regarding a new property maintenance ordinance aimed at instituting certain appearance, maintenance and lawn-care standards for private homes. As with many laws, especially those regarding private property, this ordinance wasn’t aimed at defining or protecting an owner’s property rights, but at criminalizing poor or indifferent citizenship. Of course, it’s all for a good cause: “It’s for the children,” one of the proponents said.

Apparently, it’s more harmful for children to see a messy yard than it is for them to see adults taking their neighbors to court to resolve a problem instead of pitching in to help.

As a property-owner I know how discouraging and aggravating it can be to share a neighborhood — or even a property-line — with an “eye-sore” home and lot. I am much more concerned, however, with the ever-increasing encroachments on property rights, typically in the name of “doing good.” From Kelo, to smoking bans, to how high you let the grass grow, it’s an ever-expanding power-grab passed off as being for the common good without any real examination of how much good — or how much harm — is actually being done. (On a side-note, I heard one news-reader on KFAN this a.m. referring to the new state-wide smoking ban in bars and restaurants, say the ban “does not apply to private homes at this time” — suggesting, what?)

In this particular case, this issue for me is not just a legal or conservative one about rights and what you can get people to go along with, it is a moral and Biblical one as well. Usually it seems that if you raise a moral issue these days it’s assumed that you want to impose some narrow-minded “thou shalt not” on other people. In this case the “thou shalt nots” being imposed are coming from the larger public and what’s being missed is the “thou shall” Biblical instruction. You know, the one that “thou shall love thy neighbor as thyself.” Note, that doesn’t say “love they neighbor only if thy neighbor is a believer,” nor does it say “if you are a believer, thou shall love thy neighbor.”

What if that neighbor with the dilapidated house or junky yard is someone struggling just to make ends meet and can’t afford to make the improvements to the paint or siding that the community deems to be necessary? What if that neighbor is working two or three jobs and might skip mowing the lawn from time to time? What if your neighbors are an elderly couple who don’t have the physical, let alone financial, resources to maintain the property but are trying to live independently? Shall we just have our pubic servants, the police, march up to the door and slap a citation on it? Certainly it would be “legal.” Or, alternatively, shall we walk up to the door in person, knock on it and say, “Hi, you may not know me but I’m your next-door neighbor and I was wondering if there was something I could do to help?”

Ok, so what if that neighbor is a lazy bum who’s perfectly capable of maintaining his house or yard, or is someone who just likes to use old washing machines as lawn statuary? Well, it could be that your offer might not be well-received, or that your neighbor might think that you’re the nutjob. But if a succession of people approached him or her over time and offered to help (as opposed to demanding that he or she “straighten up”) what effect could that have? The neighbor would know that people are paying attention, that they care about the neighborhood and their property values, and that they’re willing to try to help first rather than condemn. He may not change his attitude completely but he may be motivated to try to make some improvements (even grudgingly) or even accept an offer of help. Which approach do you think ultimately contributes to a better neighborhood?

If that is starting to sound like a good idea to you, but you’re thinking, “yeah, why can’t the government do something to help that guy?” then you’re still missing the point. A lot of the problems we’re facing in our communities come from the fact that we’ve allocated to the government the responsibility of looking out for the well-being of those around us, of loving our neighbors. Sure, we mean to “do good” by passing new laws and taxes but we’re merely passing off our personal responsibility to do good to another, impersonal (and usually less efficient) entity.

Now it could be that your neighbor is a loser with no conscience or sense of shame who will readily accept help from you and your neighbor and just sit back and figure someone will always bail him out and never lift a finger himself. There’s certainly precedent for that happening when the help comes from a faceless government, but may not be so common when there are real faces involved. It’s worth a try at least to see if you can make a difference, and if someone is totally resistant or irresponsible there are other Biblical examples of how to deal with an unrepentent individual (and no, they don’t involve stoning — I’m thinking Matthew 18:15-17).

Furthermore, do we know how many people might fall into this latter category, and might it be worthwhile to figure it out before writing an ordinance or passing a law? At the Inver Grove Heights meeting, one person asked the Council how many complaints had been filed regarding nuisance properties. The answer was 160. The questioner then asked how many private homes were in Inver Grove Heights. The Council and the proponents of the ordinance didn’t know.

How many of the complaints referred to the same property? They didn’t know.

How many complaints had been filed by the same person? They didn’t know.

For the time being, the Council has decided to proceed with a stripped down version of the ordinance that regulates junk, open storage, woodpiles and similar eyesores but not the outside condition of houses and other buildings. It was much less than ordinance proponents were hoping for, and the issue is still alive. A second reading of the ordinance is scheduled for the next Council meeting on October 8.

13 thoughts on “Loving your neighbor in Inver Grove Heights

  1. Why doesn’t anyone ever comment on your posts? I for one thought that this one was a gem. It’s such a knee jerk reaction to whine about the government getting too big for its britches, but we as citizens bear the responsibility for it.

  2. We’ve dealing with this in my neighborhood right now and I have alot to say on the issue (when don’t I?) but so much so that I may do my own post on it.

    However, there is one difference in this than some other issues. In this case, the offending neighbor is actually causing harm to the offended.

    Financially. We have three “problem” homes in my neighborhood, in several instances, good neighbors have decided to move out rather than deal with it any longer. However, they’ve found they couldn’t sell their home (even when the market was good) and when they do it’s a very large monetary hit.

    So arguments typically used in, for instance, smoking bans don’t apply as much. For example, if you don’t like smoke don’t go into a smoky bar. Well in this case they lived there, someone imposed this situation on them, they tried to leave, but couldn’t.

    It’s not as easy as I think you portray it. But I do sympathize with your argument. I find myself resisting having the city regulate it, but when people can’t even get themselves out of the situation due to others actions, it does make a case for outside help.

  3. In our little hillbilly town, there has been an 8 acre patch of land near the junction of two highways that has been an eyesore/public hazard for 30+ years. It is prime commercial property, yet the owner, Mr Dean, has chosen to store military surplus earth moving equipment on it, next to his run-down shopping centers. Mr Dean claims to have “more money than God”, and apparently that has been his asking price for the property for quite some time.

    Rather than creating and adhering to a substantive nuisance and abatement process, the city realized that given the help of the supreme court, they would seize Mr Dean’s property through an emminent domain (redevelopement) scheme…..even had a developer ready with a modest sum of cash ready to buy the commercial property, and 11 of the surrounding residences. The plan actually put a halt to another developer’s commercial venture on a neighboring parcel because the bigger developer wanted that land included in the legal robbery.

    The public outcry wasn’t so much in support of Mr Dean, or even the owners of the 11 adjacent houses, but more of a resounding “how dare you?” to the city council. Eventually, the out of town developer backed away from the deal not wanting to get in the middle of an uncivil war, but the city is still looking for the “right somebody” who will generate more tax revenue than Mr Dean and the surrounding riff-raff.

    In the meantime, there are still no real nuisance ordinances, much less any abatement actions.

  4. Taking land from one and giving to another is definitely wrong. Although I think this is a different issue.

    Here the land isn’t changing hands, just asking the owner to maintain a minimum level of maintenance. Problem lies in there are a million ways to define “minimum”.

  5. I guess the point I was trying to make is that while there is some need for government, it is up to the governed to limit what it can get away with.

    In IGH, just as it is here, the governed need to step forward and raise a little he…..uh, you know.

  6. I like that idea, but I think recent history is full of examples, where even though the populace raised Holy H, E, Double Hockey Sticks, the government still went forward with it.

  7. Kevin, you of all people should know that that doesn’t mean you sit back and watch them do what they want. All the people in government are public servants, and they usually need to be reminded of that. If we need to raise heck to do it, so be it.

  8. Yay!!! I like raising heck. I especially like raising heck with my BB guns… Painmakers rock. But unfortunatley, they don’t rock as much as the G36-C… Sorry, geting a little off topic there.

  9. We can’t expect the government to remember its responsibilities if we’ve already forgotten our own.

    Laws and ordinances are not necessarily an evil, especially when they come about through the democratic will of the people. They should be a last resort and not the first option, however, particularly where liberty is concerned.

    Let’s celebrate self-government but remember that for it to work we have to be willing to govern ourselves and I believe that includes how we relate to those around us. We have to stay vigilant in trying to solve problems at the “lowest” or most personal level – individual, family, church, neighborhood, town, county, state, federal – as possible.

    In the IGH case, I’d guess that most of the problem properties could be adequately resolved in this manner. There will be some properties, however, that are likely to resist all efforts of goodwill. An ordinance and the force of law may be the only recourse in these cases but only after other options have been tried. (Blatantly illegal activity on the property is already proscribed and should be dealt with by the authorities directly). My concern is that it’s all too common in our culture now to seek a government solution first.

    We get justifiably angry when we perceive the government is trying to “take” something from us, but most often we’re all too willing to give it away.

  10. MD : I didn’t say I wouldn’t raise H, E, double hockey sticks….but it doesn’t always yield results

    NW : Very true, I’m inclined not to get the city involved and resolve it ourselves. One situation solved itself. The other isn’t overly critical and is more a nuisance. The other….well, it’s a long standing problem, however, recent news indicates we might be making some progress and I have to hope it turns out well.

  11. Great post. I just moved to Inver Grove Heights, and moved here partially because I was under the impression that it was less like the Iron Curtain-Like Communities of Eden Prairie and Edina.

    I like the idea of being free to mow my lawn, do my landscaping, etc. the way I choose to. The day that the local government begins to meddle in my private property is the day that private property begins to exist only on paper.

    I completely agree that the best solution is always to go to the neighbor and help them out. I knew of many people near my former residence that simply could not afford to update their house, or could not get out to mow the lawn.

    They were much more appreciative that someone volunteered to help, than they would have been if someone simply filed a heartless complaint to the city.

    This post was inspirational and a great reminder for us all. Thank You.

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