I attended the Town Hall Meeting on Saturday night. After hearing the candidates (that were present) unanimously oppose the coal plant on the grounds that it would, at a minimum, visually impact the Lewis and Clark Trail Landmark. Wait, I guess I shouldn't say unanimous. Larry Steele does not oppose the plant on those grounds, although Mr. Steele failed to offer an articulate reason why he did not believe the plant would harm Trial visuals.
As I listened to the others, though, it occurred to me that the coal plant is planned for private property. And, while it might be easier to argue that we should be able to prevent a coal fired generating station on someone else's land, our City Commission potentially makes many decisions impacting one's private property rights. What about the Design Review Board telling a businessman, who is about to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a new building, that he needs more shrubs? What about making a personal decision about how tall someone else's signs should be?
Notions of private property are very important to me. In this modern era, where people think they should have some say in what you do on your own land because they drive by it every day, we need to be very vigilant to ensure that we do not elect those who would presume to dictate our conduct due to their preferences. This is an extremely serious and important principle in our society. (For more on the history of this issue, see this post.)
Therefore, I asked the candidates about it.
Mary Jolley and Ed McKnight both stood strongly in favor of private property rights.
I'm not sure what Larry Steele really thinks. He discussed the "American History of signs" and "intimate domain."
Stuart Lewin is not a property rights advocate. He correctly noted that we "granted these rights to ourselves in the Constitution," raising the implication that what we have granted we can take away. According to Mr. Lewin, "we have to be willing to adjust how we manage ourselves if we wish to survive...Private property rights are being used and abused to harm the planet."
I am not going to argue Mr. Lewin's point about property rights vis-a-vis environmental issues, although I disagree with him. I am going to argue a more fundamental point. Acknowledging the Constitutional importance of private property, he discussed the need to, perhaps, move past a strict understanding of private property for the greater good. What he did not mention, though, is amending the Constitution. This signals, to me, a predisposition to ignoring...wait, let's be more tactful...interpreting the Constitution in accordance with his own beliefs. Once we presume to do that, though, all bets are off. Is this a sign of how he might govern?
Susan Kahn discussed the more practical side of private property issues in Great Falls, arguing that 10th Avenue South needs more unity among the various players, something akin, maybe, to the Downtown Business Association.
She used a couple terms, though, that lead me to question her commitment to private property rights and property owners' freedom. She talked about planning and directing property uses to the "universal good." In my experience, this is a buzzword used to support the agendas of those who would tell others what to do. Didn't we hear a similar term wielded in favor of the sign code?
She also discussed the need to regulate property owners to "attract the right kind of businesses to Great Falls." I disagree. We need to attract legal businesses to Great Falls. It is not our leaders' decision what is a "good" business and what is a "bad" business.
Ms. Kahn and Mr. Lewin's positions remind me of people who are smarter than you.
As far as the remaining candidates, well, we don't know where they stand on this, do we?
UPDATE: Ed McKnight clarified my paraphrasing of him as follows: "My brief answer was that I read the 213 report by the park service which said the impact can not be mitigated. I did not say that I opposed the plant for that reason.
I oppose the involvement of the city against the will of the public, If the public had voted for it I would not oppose it. I oppose the city spending so much money on something I think will fail for technical reasons."
UPDATE: Susan Kahn states in a comment that I misquoted her. Maybe I did.
My notes reflect that she stated she would accept regulation of property uses for the "universal good" and to attract the "right kind of business." In response she says that she was referring to the expenditure of public dollars, rather than regulation. If my notes were wrong, Susan, I apologize.
Certainly spending public money for the "universal good" and to attract "the right kind of business" is more palatable than regulation to like ends, provided, however, that we assume the money should be spent.
A legitimate private property argument can be made, though, that the government has no business taking away my property (money) in order to give it to someone else in order to entice that someone else to conduct commercial activity in our town.