You are the public
June 14, 2012 —
One theme that recurs constantly with regard to various issues of local concern is the balance between private rights and public good. It is apparent especially with regard to zoning, in which individual property owners are required to restrict what they do on their land by public ordinances.
In America, a country founded by a revolution against a repressive government and with a long history of celebrating individualism, this balance is all too easily seen as a matter of “me versus them,” a single personality versus some faceless abstraction of authority. “You can’t tell me what to do with my property!” is the recurring battle cry, in particular, when any attempt is made to establish new zoning ordinances—or in some local townships, any ordinances at all.
But this is a fallacy, and a dangerous one. The truth is, each and every one of us is not only a private individual, but a member of the public. Public rights are not “their” rights; they are mine. Not “me versus them,” but “my private rights and my public rights.” And if we take care to examine them, we would be no more willing to relinquish our public rights than our private rights.
It is my right, for instance, to enjoy my own property without intrusion by nuisances created by my neighbors. This, by the way, is a very ancient and venerable part of our legal tradition. The law of nuisance started to be developed shortly after the Norman Conquest (1066). Underlying the law is the principle that no one may use their property in such a way as to injure their neighbor (there’s even a Latin phrase for it, “sic utere tuo ut alienum non laedas”).
The right to be protected from nuisance can actually be regarded both as a private and as a public right. In the first instance, a landowner can find a remedy by an individual suit. But if the nuisance created is significant enough to affect the health, safety and welfare of all those in the area around the activity in question, it is seen as public nuisance as well. In the latter case, the government is the party that represents, and can protect, our public rights, and may take action—normally, nowadays, through zoning.