Should you be able to do whatever you want on your own land?

Private property rights and the ability of government to regulate them have been an issue since before the United States was founded.

Should government have the authority to tell you what you can and cannot do on your own property? This discussion has been debated since before the founding of our country. Many think the founding fathers agreed on all issues, but that is not true. Even on this fundamental issue, there was disagreement.

Below you will find a series of questions to get groups thinking about issues that have been challenging our country for many years. This can be done within a family, as part of school activities, a 4-H club or with any group working with young people. Have a robust dialogue about these issues and encourage young people to find data to back up their opinions.

During the discussion, try to limit interjecting your own opinions, and let the youth discuss it among themselves. These type of exercises could be used to help a group think about civic issues or even be a stepping stone to the next step of writing their legislator.

John Adams said, “Property must be secured, or liberty cannot exist.”

Benjamin Franklin stated, “Private property…is a creature of society, and is subject to the calls of that society, whenever its necessities shall require it, even to its last farthing.”

Who is correct, Adams or Franklin? Or is the answer somewhere in between?

When I ask this question in a group, the response is often, “You should be able to do whatever you want as long as it doesn’t affect others.” In theory, this makes sense, but where do you draw the line? Here are some questions to ponder.

Rules related to what you can do on your own property are usually made at the local level by a city or township ordinance, and can vary within an area depending on local planning and zoning.

Should you be able to have junk in your yard or let your grass grow as high as you want? How might that affect your neighbors? Should the government be able to say whether or not you can have a garden?

Should a business selling pornography be allowed next to a preschool or a church? Why or why not?

Should you be able to play any kind of music at any time of day or night as loud as you want? Should law enforcement be able to do whatever they want about barking dogs?

Should a business, such as a paint shop, that produces foul smells be allowed in a residential neighborhood? What about animals that produce large amounts of manure?

Should you be able to do potentially dangerous activities? Should you be able to keep dangerous animals? Should you be able to keep large amounts of poisonous or explosive chemicals?

What if you bought a historic house, should you be able to change it however you want?

The Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution has a “takings clause” that states, “Nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”

What counts as a “taking?” When should property owners receive compensation?

For example, if you had a piece of property you wanted to build on, and the government said you could not because the last panda bear in all the world lived there, should government have to pay you for the property? Or should government be able to restrict what you want to do at all?

If you want to build a skyscraper and the government says you cannot because it will interfere with airplane navigation, should you be paid for that? Or because you can build a building, just not as tall as you want, should the government not have to pay?

Hopefully these questions will get some good discussion about private property and the good of society. If you have some great ideas, share them with your local county, city or township, or your state or federal legislators.

To learn about the positive impact of Michigan 4-H youth leadership, citizenship and service and global and cultural education programs, read our 2016 Impact Report: “Developing Civically Engaged Leaders.” Additional impact reports, highlighting even more ways Michigan State University Extension and Michigan 4-H have positively impacted individuals and communities in 2016, can be downloaded from the MSU Extension website.

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