There were two common refrains at Tuesday's Urban County Council confrontation between our vice mayor and the developers of CentrePointe.
One was the word "Unfortunately" continuously invoked by the developers. While "unfortunately" led some 6 sentences in the developers' prepared statement, it also led nearly every response from the developers to difficult questions from the Council. Unfortunately, the developers didn't foresee the economic downturn. Unfortunately, things change in projects like these. Unfortunately, bloggers and the press and rumor-mongers have pointed out immense and inconvenient flaws in our business case. Unfortunately, it is apparently their free-speech right to do so. Unfortunately, people die.
Well, um, unfortunately, REAL businesspeople are supposed to anticipate and overcome such circumstances (not be paralyzed by them). Anything less amounts to sheer speculation. Which is what Lexington has encountered with CentrePointe.
The second refrain was actually more worrisome and more puzzling. It came from members of the Council who acted as apologists for the developers (developers whose actions can only be characterized as bumbling). These same councilmembers – Lane, Stinnett, Myers, McChord, and Beard – felt compelled to offer apologies for forcing the developers to account for their continuous inaction.
The refrain they used was "private". Councilmember Myers asserted that this is private property assembled by private developers with private funds, that the developers could do whatever they wish with it, and that the council had no business forcing CentrePointe's developers to explain their incompetence.
Before more libertarian readers resort to labeling me a socialist, let me assert my firm belief in property rights. Unlike some of my more radical friends, I believe that property and capital and money have driven the vast majority of improvements in our living conditions and overall social well-being. To be sure (and as we have seen quite clearly of late), capitalism often has an ugly downside driven by unrestrained greed. But the long term gains have far outweighed that downside.
The crater created by CenterPointe's developers is certainly private property. It belongs to them.
But here's where the stalwart defenders of property rights are wrong: Private property always comes with civic responsibility. Owners of private property cannot use their property in ways which destroy value for surrounding properties or surrounding businesses.
Let me illustrate this principle with a recent and vivid example: A year and a half ago, in the Andover neighborhood, there was a private home that was infested with rats. The community and the Health Department mobilized to eradicate the rats and eradicate the problem. Nearby property owners (including yours truly) were rightly concerned for both our safety and our property values.
Apparently, these same councilmembers would claim that the rat-infested house was private property, and, thus, the community had no right to defend their health or their property values. Would councilmember Myers sit on his hands if a rat-infested house was next door to his house? Apparently so. Would councilmember Lane approve of a neighbor's right to spread pig manure (and noxious fumes) to fertilize their lawn in his Hartland Gardens? Apparently so. After all, it is their property, and they can do what they wish with it. Right?
Of course not. Private property comes with civic responsibility.
With CentrePointe, we have a rathole downtown. The rats, while not physical, are more insidious and more destructive:
- There's the bulldozer rat that razed buildings, jobs, businesses, and revenue last July. The rathole has produced no jobs, no revenue, no businesses, and no buildings.
- There's the ugly-city rat that an out-of-town visitor takes back to their home as tourism dollars and tourists mysteriously disappear from downtown. I suspect there will be many of this breed of rats available for the World Equestrian Games next year.
- There's the blight rat which drains surrounding property values and sucks patrons out of surrounding businesses.
- And, finally, there's the developer rat, who repeatedly fails to deliver on public statements about CentrePointe's timing, funding, and business model.
Councilmembers Stinnett, McChord, Myers, Lane, and Beard appear to sympathize with both the rats and with the rathole.
I do not. And I don't appreciate our representatives who do. And I'm not alone.
Private property comes with civic responsibility. We need leaders who recognize that fact.