Bruce Ramsey, the Seattle Times editorial board’s resident libertarian (you know, the one who hates government on principle), chronicles the travails of a would-be gentleman farmer who has given up his dream of tilling 89 acres of Snoqualmie Valley hillside and bottomland due to excessive King County rules and regulations. And while it’s hard to defend the permitting hassles Ramsey cites, at least offhand, there was one paragraph that kinda jumped out at me (the emphasis is mine):
To pave a driveway, the blueprint — one sheet — cost $1,000. The county, which funds its permit department through fees, wanted $22,000 to review the one sheet. Capeder hired a lawyer, and they settled for $10,000.
A thousand dollars for a one sheet blue print? Another $22,000 to review it? That sounds rather outrageous, and it doesn’t take a libertarian to realize how such steep upfront permitting costs can discourage entrepreneurialism.
But this anecdote also demonstrates the delicate balance that government must strike every day in protecting and promoting the commonweal, while levying the costs of the services provided relative to the individual and communal benefits enjoyed, as fairly, pragmatically and efficiently as possible.
Still, setting aside those who would argue for little or no government regulation of private land (there’s no arguing with ideologues), let’s start from the assumption that the community as a whole benefits from land-use regulations and the permitting process it necessitates. After all, even Tim Eyman would object were I to purchase the house next door, knock it down, and propose to replace it with, say, a Hooters, or an auto-wrecking yard or something similarly out of place in the midst of a residential neighborhood… and rightly so.
On the other hand, Tim might also object were I simply to buy the house next door and propose to live in it, though in this case he would have no moral or legal right to stop me. So hyperbole aside, I think most of us can safely agree that there are limits to both the rights of the landowner, and the rights the community to limit the rights of the landowner.
With that established, let’s get back to the woes of our gentleman farmer. $22,000 to review a permit for a driveway sure does sound excessive, though given the size of the property, I’m guessing were not talking your typical, 40-foot residential driveway here, but rather something more akin to a private road through agricultural land, with all the environmental impact that implies. So whether the fee was $22,000, or the $10,000 figure on which the department finally settled, let’s just assume that this represents the actual cost of reviewing the permit in a manner thorough enough to actually meet the intent of the rule that requires the permit in the first place.
Now, who should pay for this?
There is an awfully strong argument to make that developers should pay for the cost of permitting and inspecting their own projects, as they’re the ones who enjoy the most immediate economic benefit from their developments. And make no mistake, that’s what Ramsey’s gentleman farmer is — a developer — for the permits in question are not for farming, but rather for the development he proposed to build processing, retail and tourist facilities on his property, and the private road driveway to get there. Ramsey’s column is titled “Rules and roadblocks make farmland difficult to farm,” but that’s a bit misleading, as it’s the agribusiness related land development that is the subject of permitting, not the farming itself, and the question of whether farming such expensive land is economically viable without this development is still an open question.
I’m not arguing against this guy’s integrated farm/processor/retail/tourism concept; I think it’s a brilliant, creative approach to turning expensive exurban farmland into an economically viable operation, and I’d love to see him succeed here in King County rather than Skagit. But the concept requires building stuff, building stuff requires permitting, permitting costs money… and somebody’s got to pay for it. If it works, our gentleman farmer stands to make a pretty penny off his venture, so shouldn’t he pay for the costs of starting it up, rather than shifting the cost to taxpayers like me and Ramsey?
On the other hand, by requiring the permitting department to recover the costs of its operations solely from its users, perhaps we’ve made the upfront costs of development too high, discouraging such innovative projects that would ultimately prove an economic boon to the surrounding community, while keeping precious farmland in use as such? Perhaps the benefits to the community of such development are so great, that we should all bear the costs? Perhaps by shifting the cost of an essential government service to the individual user, we’ve made the service unaffordable, and tipped the balance too far in one direction?
For example, as homeowners, we all pay a not insubstantial portion of our property tax each year to fund the local fire department, a government service most of us will never use. But were we to shift the cost of firefighting to the individual user, few would be able to afford the service; imagine losing everything you own in a fire, only to have the fire department hand you a $50,000 bill for snuffing out the flames. Yet like the land-use permits, we can’t make firefighting optional, as failing to fight your fire would put my property at risk as well.
That would be ridiculous, of course, and so we socialize the cost of firefighting and other essential services by forcibly collecting it from the community as a whole in the form of taxes. Nobody likes to pay taxes, not even tax-and-spend liberals like me. But we all benefit from the services and infrastructure they fund.
So perhaps, if the cost of permitting a “driveway” through 89 acres of Snoqualmie Valley farmland is too high, and the benefits to the community of such development are so great, then perhaps we should shift some of the costs incurred by the permitting process away from the individual user and onto the community at large… you know, us taxpayers? I’m not arguing for this shift, just that these sort of equations are part of the delicate balance between the needs and rights of the individual and the needs and rights of the community that every functioning government must strike.
And that is the irony of Ramsey calling out the self-funding nature of the permitting department, for while he no doubt would prefer that such permits weren’t required at all, this anecdote only serves to illustrate the broader nature of government and the inherent flaws in the libertarian agenda as a whole. For when we devolve government services and infrastructure, shifting the costs from the community to the individual users, either through “user fees,” or ultimately through privatization, much of what government provides ceases to be affordable to all but the wealthiest consumers.
The costs of some government services should be borne directly by users, and I’d argue that permitting fees generally fall into this category, though since my position is based on pragmatism not philosophy, I’m willing to consider the alternative. But while Ramsey is happy to lay out the $22,000 driveway permit as an example of government regulation run amuck, judging from his oeuvre I’m guessing he’d be unwilling to consider raising taxes on the rest of us — including himself — to help make such innovative development more affordable. Nor does he even attempt to engage in the question of whether there should or should not be a permitting process for paving a private road through agricultural land, or who, if anybody, should pay for it.
No, as the Times’ resident libertarian, Ramsey is content merely to grab a couple of anecdotes out of context and present them as an example of, well, of government regulation run amuck. And considering how little popular support there is here in King County for the kinda regulation-free, libertarian dystopia that would be the logical conclusion of the philosophy Ramsey appears to espouse, I’m just not sure that this moves the conversation anywhere.