Originally appeared in Fort Collins Now
24 August 2007
Apparently some members of our City Council just can’t stand peeling paint. They gaze disapprovingly at the fading glory of aging houses, and the less than luxurious landscaping in the yards of some of our poorer citizens, and tut tut to themselves “Why, there ought to be a law against that!” If they can muster four votes, pretty soon there will be.
Laws are established on the premise that government restrictions on our personal freedom are necessary to protect public health and safety. We have zoning rules so you can’t build a fireworks factory on your property and accidentally blow up your neighbors. We have traffic laws so your freedom to drive wherever you want won’t kill or maim your fellow drivers. We have public health rules so you can be as big a slob as you want so long as you don’t endanger the community’s health.
So tell me: how is public health and safety threatened by ugly houses and unsightly lawns? Since there clearly is no such threat, on what basis does the City Council propose to adopt intrusive and unneeded new regulations? Aesthetics? Maintaining property values? Sprucing up our town so we can regain our #1 ranking in Money Magazine’s 2008 poll?
In my neighborhood, as in many others, there is a homeowners’ association (HOA). I knew it was here when I bought the house, but I considered it a nuisance I could hopefully ignore. The HOA claims the right to approve or disapprove the color people choose to repaint their homes, which explains why a few years ago almost all the homes were gray or beige. Thankfully, the HOA has fallen into a coma in recent years, and the neighborhood has blossomed into beautiful blues, green, yellows and pinks. Now a new HOA president is warning us all to get official approval before we dare repaint our homes, or risk the wrath of their lawyers and liens. It makes me want to paint my house pink with purple polka dots just to scream to the world “It’s my house, and I’ll paint it however I darn well please!” Here in America, our home is our castle, we can decorate it however we like, and no one else’s opinion really matters.
Where does this meddling stop? I support rules against junked cars parked on city streets and garbage piling up on lawns, because rusting metal, toxic runoff, and rats really are a public health nuisance. But what if someone parks an ugly-yet-serviceable vehicle in front of their home, because they like it or that’s all they can afford? Is that really anybody else’s business? No, it’s not.
Besides, beauty is in the eye of the beer holder, as they say. Apparently, people in this town love their Kentucky bluegrass lawns, which work great in Kentucky with their 45 inches of rain a year, but not so great here in the arid high plains with our annual 12 inches of rain. Personally, I think bluegrass lawns are monotonous and ugly. We tore ours out and replaced the whole alien mess with native grass and flowering xeric plants. It takes a while for everything to get established, but now we have one of the nicest yards in the neighborhood. So who gets to decide which is the beauty and which is the beast in the realm of lawn order?
Critics aptly claim our council is proposing to turn the whole city into a giant HOA. My advice to our misguided municipal busybodies is “If you can’t stand looking at an ugly house, don’t look at it.” Avert your over-sensitive eyes. Offer to help the homeowner fix things up, if they welcome and need help. Pass a law giving renters at least some rights and requiring landlords to maintain basic habitability standards on their properties. But leave the peeling paint alone.