If you’ve ever been forced to make a decision or take a stand while frightened or anxious, then this blog post is for you. After all, the ownership and use and memories of land and “place” evoke strong emotions. You probably won’t study the emotional aspects of land in a law school or urban planning class, but human emotions permeate every dirt clod and every tree on every acre of land you know.
Land use, like the political cauldrons in which land use decisions are made, does not always follow logical and linear decision-making processes. We study the legal and logical aspects of land in our universities, but the critical decisions that affect its development and changes are propelled, more often than not, through emotional decision-making. I’ve written and spoken about this relatively unexplored phenomenon on many occasions. The world of litigation is full of studies on how and why juries do as juries do. Although they probably exist, I’ve never seen similar academic studies of how and why elected officials make certain decisions on land use following presentations at public hearings.
When we do study the emotional aspects of land use, chances are the fears and anxieties are hidden behind surrogate issues and the fearful and the anxious are elevated in stature by calling them “stakeholders,” almost as if they had an equal right to the use of the land as the person who owns it.
This past Sunday New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof blogged about public decisions being made because of fears of Islam (“Is Islamophobia the New Hysteria”), much the same as actions that were taken over the decades and centuries against Catholics and Germans and Mormons and Irish and Jews and Japanese where “fear spread in part because of misinformation.” When we are scared, he reminds us, we can do unconscionable things.
Fear motivates. But fear also blinds.
Humans are humans, whether the perceived threat is religious or ethnic or an invasion from “outsiders” who want to impose some sort of control over the community’s land, as I wrote in my most recent post (Where Do You Shoot YOUR Machine Guns?)
In land use, the public perception of change is too often guided by misunderstandings of facts, by fears and distrusts, and by the amplification of these misunderstandings and emotions as they proceed with urgency through the community rumor mills.
Elected officials who listen too closely to literal expressions of positions can reach inaccurate understandings of what is communicated. For example, the key information provided at a hearing is sometimes based upon facts that don’t exist, and the opinions expressed are fears of change or fears of the unknown that are without foundation or any rational relationship to the project. And sometimes the most important input is from what is not said rather than what is said. Perhaps worse, the decision made may have less to do with the proposal itself than with preservation of the elected person’s relationship with the electorate.
Writer’s Note: I get four to five times as many personal comments by email as I do “open” comments on blog posts, and I appreciate them in whatever form they come. The posts which I seem to get the most input (and the least criticism) on have been posts where I have discussed the human rather than legal components of land use. Today’s post presents nothing that I haven’t written about in this space before, but the Kristof editorial made me sit up, whisper “amen,” and move to the keyboard.
Additionally, I have received quite a few comments from folks about the immediately preceding post on the outdoor shooting range in the Village of Wesley Chapel (one of which was from Dave Neill, a land use attorney I work with). Most of the commentators pointed out that the shooting range was there first. Each of them is correct. It was there first, and that fact was prominently noted in the post (third paragraph). But Dave made a further comment that was especially insightful. On the issue of losing vested rights status because of making material alterations, would it not have been an injustice, he asked, if the alterations were done to make the range safer and more compatible, but the landowner was then penalized by losing his rights simply because he was trying to be a safer and kinder and better neighbor. His point was well made and I thought worth passing along.
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