Communism? County debates the rights of property owners
An attempt to update language in Hubbard County's solid waste ordinance turned into an hour-long debate on individual property rights versus government intrusion at Wednesday's board meeting.
The boardroom was filled with rural residents concerned about whether the county could regulate what they collect - and amass - on their own property and who would police an ordinance limiting those collections.
The board held a public hearing on proposed amendments to a 17-year-old solid waste ordinance that few were aware of.
County board member Lyle Robinson pre-empted the public outcry by bluntly voicing his opposition to the changes and the county's right to enforce them.
"It's on my property and it's nobody's damned business," he said of an amendment attempting to limit the number of old autos, farm equipment, appliances and other items of trash on private property.
Under a new section regulating "collectors," the amendment would limit collections to a certain number of inoperable vehicles or pieces of equipment and ask homeowners to screen them from public view as eyesores.
Junkyards are regulated by state and federal pollution agencies and are subject to approved storm water treatment plans.
"Communism," said Paul Corson of Guthrie.
"Why does the person driving down the highway have more rights than the person who owns the land?" Robinson questioned to appasking who would dictate what constitutes an eyesore and how visible it must be to offend.
Commissioner Cal Johannsen said the county doesn't have the funds to enforce a countywide cleanup of private property and "we shouldn't have something in an ordinance we're not enforcing."
Many of the three-dozen citizens gathered maintained as taxpayers, government had no right to dictate the aesthetics of "junky yards" to them because it was simply too subjective.
Solid Waste Superintendent Vern Massie said health and welfare reasons from both federal and state environmental agencies have dictated change, especially concerning groundwater pollution.
But the board unanimously backed away from regulating the aesthetics of junk.
"I'm probably in violation of the ordinance," Johannsen admitted. "I don't see where government has the right to tell me what my property looks like."
Amen!" came a shout from the audience.
"If you don't like it, don't look at it," Johannsen said, summing up the sentiment in the room.
Massie said he gets very few complaints about "junky yards," and usually deals with the offending property owners individually.
"I didn't say the state rules made sense," he told the sometimes-surly crowd.
Some of the amendments would prescribe that solid waste be dumped often or that certain toxic electronics should not go into the waste stream, he said.
"Our solid waste system eliminated those junky yards," he said of the county's waste and drive-through transfer stations. "It corrected and cleaned up a lot of places in the county."
And while many audience members agreed the collections on smaller pieces of property tend to be highly visible and annoying, the criteria for cleanup was too subjective to enforce fairly.
Cory Miller questioned if government could abuse such cleanup authority.
"It could get everybody in the county if the definition's too tight," he said.
Resident Roy Hagstrom questioned if he was in violation after a tornado ripped through his property.
Johannsen said the county needs to keep the public health, safety and welfare in mind when enacting any amendments to its ordinance.
Resident Charlie Burns suggested government give landowners incentives to clean up their yards, not penalize them by raising their property valuations and increase their taxes for making improvements.
And extremists can take regulations too far by banning feedlots as hazardous and ban hay cutting because it could disturb insects in the grass.
"That's a bunch of bunk," he said. "Everybody will be against a wall."
The board continued the public hearing until June 15, when objectionable parts of the ordinance will be fine-tuned, taking the public comments into consideration.
And Burns said the county has come a long way in his lifetime, self-policing garbage collections.
"They used to throw it in the creeks, over the hills," he said of rural residents. But he also suggested that when some residents can get permits to spread septic system contents on their fields, it baffles others why a collection of old cars is offensive.