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Notes from the Apocalypse

From the Archives – Private Property Rights

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By Charles Morgan III


Editor’s Note: Due to my lackadaisical attitude and fondness for Wild Turkey 101 at well before 4PM, we don’t have a new column by Charles this go-round.


Fortunately, Charles suggested we re-run this column from the January 27, 2005 Beachcomber, because it still resonates.


The arguments surrounding the issue of private property rights are getting more heated every day. As philosophical differences go, property disputes are among the most unseemly of all. They invariably pit the haves against the have-nots. In Destin, where there seem to be a disproportionate number of wealthy people, the arguments are particularly interesting.


This 20-year-old city was incorporated so that we could have more control over our growth and appearance than was being provided by the Okaloosa County Commissioners. Now it looks like we have managed to make it next to impossible for the average citizen to build a backyard storage shed.


At the same time, we’ve made it easy for developers and their top-flight lawyers and land planners and engineers to radically alter the landscape and the day-to-day lives of our citizens.


Even though we are a young municipality, we are an incredibly wealthy one.  In Atlanta, where I grew up, there were wealthy families that found a way to donate property to their city. The Candler and Woodruff families, and others enriched from their involvement with Coca-Cola, left amazing acreage for parks (Piedmont and Candler), and money for schools (Emory and Georgia Tech) and hospitals (Piedmont and Grady). This generosity has made Atlanta an immensely livable and enjoyable city.


That did not happen in Destin. We came up way short in the benefactor department. So now it is left up to us.


The property rights issues currently facing Destin are confusing at best. We have many non-conforming businesses in some of Destin’s oldest residential areas. People who live near these out-of-place businesses want to know what the future holds for these properties.


If an originally grandfathered-in property is allowed to be subleased, what type of business can take its place? A crematory? An acre of dog kennels? An asylum for criminally insane Muslims?


Of course, one solution to problems of this nature is for the city to step forward and purchase properties in situations like this. The condominium being considered at the tip of Holiday Isle is such a property. The ownership of this property has changed hands so many times you need a scorecard to keep track of its status. There is a reason this property has been passed around—sometimes, after a storm, it doesn’t even exist. When it does exist it has been utilized by thousands of people as a place of recreation.


There is a property that has been sitting vacant on the harbor for 10 years that would make an incredible municipal marina and park. Just recently, an idea surfaced to purchase the Mattie Kelly homestead and turn it into a public park. All of these purchases would make this a better place to live.


The Northwest Florida Daily News’ libertarian views on property rights are well known. They opine that cities, counties, states, and presumably the federal government have no business buying property for the public’s use. They also argue against zoning laws and sign ordinances. If you ever have had the misfortune of driving down Racetrack Road in Fort Walton Beach you will see the results of their philosophy.


The libertarian approach would leave us with no community swimming pools, no boat ramps, no public tennis courts or softball and soccer fields. The national park system developed by Teddy Roosevelt has provided our middle class with an inexpensive way to enjoy our protected wilderness areas and would not exist if the Daily News philosophy prevailed. These lands, which have been preserved for all Americans, are being protected from development by and for the wealthy people of this country.


Since the vast majority of our citizens can barely afford a home—much less recreational property—where does this philosophy leave them? Middle and lower class people are the ones who depend on public property. They can’t afford waterfront property, much less private soccer, baseball and football fields for their children to play on.


So my interest in wealthy folks arguing over property rights is not nearly as keen as my concern over public property rights.


While it might be theoretically preferable to have recreational facilities privately owned, it is not feasible in many instances. Just because a competitive swimming pool is not a financially promising private venture doesn’t mean our area should have to forfeit another generation of average swimmers. Since privately financed and operated soccer fields and little league baseball complexes aren’t profitable, should our children forego the opportunity to participate in these sports? Of course not.


We are an incredibly wealthy community. Wealthy communities pull together (there is strength in numbers) and build facilities that no individual should be expected to provide.


The rewards for a benevolent community are numerous. For those who view everything in monetary terms, property values increase dramatically when a community has first class recreational facilities. Excellent schools add to an area’s property values, and so do great parks and recreational facilities.


Fairhope, Alabama, has become home to several disillusioned families from the Destin area in the past few years. Fairhope was founded at the turn of the last century as a utopian community. In 1900, the Gaston family decided the one mile of waterfront in Fairhope was too valuable for any individual to own. It became everyone’s property—the proud property of the public. They accomplished that more than 100 years ago.


Meanwhile, the debate in Destin over the height and location of the latest condominium project rages on. This summer, there will be flare-ups on the beach as to who has the right to sit on our beautiful white sands. Can tourists walk our beaches on the dry sand? Or do they have to walk on the wet beach, below the high water mark?


One hundred years ago, the founders of Fairhope would have looked upon our current dilemma with dismay, distaste and disgust. And they would be correct on every count.

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