So Much For Limited Government

Today’s Courier Herald Column:

When people ask where I’m from, I usually say “Atlanta”.  I wasn’t born or raised in Atlanta, but rather in the northern section of Fayette County Georgia, just South of Atlanta.  It wasn’t Atlanta then, but was instead quite rural. Cows lived in pastures to the front, rear, and both sides of our home. 

We didn’t have any cows.  Over time, we had pigs, chickens, and rabbits.  One of my uncles tried his hand at raising beagle puppies in the backyard.  None of this was unusual, as all of the neighbors had animals of some sort.

Eventually, our rural corner of the earth became “Atlanta”, or at least its suburbs.  Other folks moved in.  First from places like College Park and Hapeville, and then from strange places like Michigan.  They then proceeded to pass tougher and tougher zoning laws.  Minimum lot sizes, restricted land uses, home size requirements, and leash laws became the standard as newcomers turned rural into a more urbanized environment.  

Folks who claimed they had found the perfect place set about imposing new rules to try to turn perfection into the place from whence they had just come.  This process was not unique to Fayette, but was repeated all over metro Atlanta as the region grew from roughly one million people to five times that number over my lifetime.

With the population growth has come the growth of government.  New rules, regulations, and requirements were made to have everyone conform to what was perceived to help property values.  These suburbs, populated by Georgia’s only identifiable groups of Republicans in the seventies and eighties, saw the power and scope of government creep into the everyday decisions of lives on a personal level that would have been thought unfathomable and unacceptable if proposed at a national level.  Somehow, when proposed by neighbors, intrusions into personal property rights were branded as acceptable and even “Republican”.

Growing up, I listened to Neil Boortz a lot. He’s been on Atlanta radio my entire life.  As such, I have heard his axiom about government power enough times that it is somewhat internalized.  Government decisions should not be made unless you would be willing to have the power granted to government exercised against your mother at gunpoint.  If the price of compliance for a tax or regulation does not meet this threshold, then the policy does not rise to the need of something the government should be doing.

Roswell Georgia, about as far north of Atlanta as Fayetteville is to the South, was also once rural like my native Fayette County.  Andrew Wordes believed it still should be, and had a long running battle with the city over chickens he kept on his property.  Neighbors did not take kindly to his raising of “livestock” in a residential area.  His long running feud saw him jailed several times over his refusal to give up his chickens.  Wordes blamed his incarcerations for falling behind on his mortgage payments, and his home went into foreclosure. 

Monday, as marshals attempted to evict him from his home, he apparently poured gasoline throughout the property and blew the home up while Wordes remained inside. The “Roswell Chicken Man” lost his battle with Roswell and its zoning laws, as well as against his mortgage company.  With the powers of the laws being enforced at the point of a gun, Wordes decided the final battle over his property rights would still be settled on his own terms.

This battle should not have ended this way.  This really isn’t in question.  The question remains, however, at what point should this battle have begun?  Roswell’s position is not unique.  Cobb County and Chatham County have had similar issues with chickens in residential areas publicized during the past year.  At some point, however, someone must ask “Is keeping chickens in their proper place worth exercising the power of government at the point of a gun?”

As we are often reminded, Georgia is now a state with a super-majority of Republicans.  Republicans, we are told, are the party of limited government.  Yet government continues to grow, and control the most basic elements of what we can and can’t do with our property and ourselves. 

How trivial are the levels to which we will try to regulate and micro-manage each other’s lives? Republicans in the state legislature will spend part of the final days of this legislative session debating if music therapists in Georgia must be licensed.  After all, you can imagine the damage that can be done if someone practices music therapy without the state’s oversight.

There was a time when Republicans believed that government didn’t have all the answers.  Neighbors used to have to learn how to live with their fellow neighbors.  Now, we’re willing to call upon the government to stop neighbors from producing farm fresh eggs or to make sure that the 100 people currently calling themselves “music therapists” get permission to continue to do so from the state.

The Fayette County I grew up in is long since lost to those who changed it to suit what they thought it should be.  The Republican party of limited government appears equally lost to those who see the power of government and wish to use it to control others to be what they want them to be.

38 comments

  1. Calypso says:

    Charlie, I’m glad you used the term ‘limited’ government instead of the more commonly referred ‘smaller’ government. There is a difference and people should acquaint themselves with that difference and use the proper term as necessary.

  2. GTKay says:

    Charlie, were the marshals there to evict him because he would not comply with the zoning laws or because he had not been paying him mortgage? I don’t know anything other that what I’ve read in the AJC, but while this horrible story is presented as the end result of a zoning dispute, it sounds as though he was not paying his mortgage.

    • Charlie says:

      News reports indicate he was behind on paying his mortgage because of time he spent in jail because of the chickens. Time spent in jail is time not working to earn money to pay mortgages. Jail for chickens is enforcement of the law at the point of a gun.

      • bgsmallz says:

        Last I heard, we don’t have an epidemic of folks going to jail or blowing up houses for code enforcement violations. Just a thought, but maybe focusing on a guy that went to jail for three months, illegally graded his property, and blew himself up should be left up to Boortz and other entertainers and not brought into serious discussion about limited government.

        And just so I’m straight…we are supposed to believe that this man…would have dealt reasonably with his neighbors over the chickens?

        I might be in the minority of ‘conservatives’…if you’d even have me…but I’m actually pleased that when my neighbor’s chickens are producing awful noise and disturbing my enjoyment of my slice of property, I can call my government and they have a pretty clear-cut mandate through the will of the people on whose right…my right to not hear chickens or his right to have chickens…should take precedence.

        In a situation where you have people living on top of each other and you have a dispute, you have two ways of solving it…by force or by law. Chicken man and you had several options when the neighbors started moving in…you could buy up all the land around you to keep it rural. You could move further out into the sticks. You are certainly free to do both. However, you don’t have a right to encroach on your neighbor’s property….either physically or through nuisance. I assume it wouldn’t be ok for neighbors to kill the chickens if Chicken Man wouldn’t shut them up, would it?

        Just like it isn’t ok to let your cows wander on my land, to not pay for sewer service and instead dump fecal matter in your yard, to play loud music into the night that your neighbor can hear in her bedroom, to put up a neon sign in your front yard announcing that you are the awesomest house on Earth, to run a strip club out of your basement at the end of the cul-de-sac….

        …. the same principal applies here. Chickens create externalities for neighbors. You might not agree on the degree of harm, but last I checked, you aren’t the dictator of Roswell. Communities draw lines on what amount of externalities are acceptable because, after all, we believe that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are inalienable rights for all people…not just those that want to raise chickens or walk dogs without leashes. We all live with those lines after they are drawn, under the rule of law, and expect our government to enforce those with ‘the gun’…mostly so that we don’t have to ourselves.

        Yet our government remains limited…deriving its power from the consent of the governed…and can’t stop you, the chicken man or anyone else from either (a) moving or (b) moving the line.

        However, in the name of limited government, let’s have more duels with pistols at dawn. That certainly would be better than a city enforcing the code.

        • abmagic says:

          The city changed the rules on Wordes. Generally when rules are changed, existing conditions are grandfathered in. Roswell specifically excluded grandfathered cases when they changed the ordinance. Also, tax records show that Wordes lived on the property (with his chickens) for years before the adjacent property owner’s bought their houses. Why should he be forced to move after the fact because some idiot bought a house without looking at the conditions precedent in adjacent properties?

          • bgsmallz says:

            1) The people of the city of Roswell had every right to demand that the existing conditions be grandfathered in, correct? They didn’t. That’s limited government…the fact that a citizen like the Chicken Man and the other citizens of Roswell can demand the government allow him to keep his chickens or appeal to the Constitution to prevent the government from encroaching upon one of his inalienable rights. (at which point, chicken man and the rest of his friends could push for a constitutional amendment declaring chickens to be legal and restrictions against chickens to be unconstitutional)

            2) So…if I live next door to two vacant lots and every night set up construction grade spotlights in the back yard to keep away raccoons, the old defense of ‘I was here first’ should be applicable when people move in?

            You don’t have a right to create a nuisance. You have right to (a) buy the property next door so that no one is affected by your nuisance or (b) to move when someone moves in next door so that you can continue your nuisance somewhere else.

            • Dave Bearse says:

              A routinely good post, as well as the points and counterpoints heretofore—the type of dialogue I come here for.

            • Cassandra says:

              bgsmallz: All good points, mostly ‘very’ correct and essentially I have no dispute with the logic.

              And yet, a man is dead because he chose to stand on his principals and met head on with an inflexible government ruling. That the principals are easily laughed at, seem inane, or are foreign to most of us is irrelevant.

              To me this matter could have been resolved taking into consideration that some citizens views, while maddening and seemingly idiotic, cannot rightfully be trampled under by logic, rules, and ordinances without the potential for equally irrational consequences.

              I don’t agree that a viable solution is for the citizen to move when a government rules in this manner.

              If nothing was done, the problem would have resolved itself in probably less than than two generations.

              • bgsmallz says:

                Cassie-

                First, due respect to a man passing. I want to neither make light of his trials or light of his passing. Regardless of our opinions of the validity of his position, I’m attempting to remain sympathetic to his family/friends. For that reason, I’ve tried to avoid delving into the reason ‘why’ a man is dead.

                Second, I think my point isn’t that a person should move…but that he has the freedom to move. That’s the debate here: what “freedoms” are being taken away by the city of Roswell and their not -so-limited government. The same argument applies to the neighbor. She is free to continue to live next to loud chickens or to not move there or to move out.

                The crux of the issue is this: assuming chicken man doesn’t want to move and assuming neighbor doesn’t want to move, who should bear the burden of the cost of the externalities created by chickens? Is there a reasonable compromise position that is constitutional and that can be codified rather than decided in the courts through common law or through the neighbors deciding the manner themselves by force?

                To this extent, the people of Roswell have spoken. There is a balance b/w chickens and noise that is acceptable based upon the size of the lot. If you, neighbor, don’t want to put up with that level of cost, you can move or work it out with your neighbor. If you, chicken owner, want more chickens, you can move or work it out with your neighbor.

                It seems simple…but yet to many, it isn’t. Fine. Difference of opinion…but until the Supreme General of the People’s Republic of Roswell frees my family, I will continue to defend the sovereign rule of their authority. (Oh wait….)

  3. gcp says:

    Enjoyment of my property includes freedom from listening to neighbors’ excessive noise, pollution, or dead overhanging tree branches. Perhaps this guy should have moved to a more hospitable area if he was so dissatisfied with Roswell. Per the AJC, a friend in Milton and Mayor Wood offered him another place to live but he refused to leave. His recent incarceration was because he refused to complete the terms of his probation on another charge which had nothing to do with chickens. It’s ironic that his final act, while tragic, also put his neighbors and law enforcement at risk.

    • Joshua Morris says:

      Enjoyment of your property stops at your property line. Otherwise, you should ask the local government to restrict any cars that come down your street from being louder than you prefer or from putting off any noxious odors that may float onto your property. Maybe you should tell all your neighbors to be sure their children play silently outside.

      Perhaps if people didn’t like this guy’s ‘livestock’, they shouldn’t have moved into a home near him.

      • bgsmallz says:

        Did chicken man have a sound barrier so that enjoyment of his property stopped at his property line?

        No?

        Oh…so you mean we are going to do a line drawing exercise on whose right should supersede?

        Yes?

        How do we do that? Do we appeal to the conch or the spear? Errrr…I mean do we fight it out and see who wins or do we appeal to law?

        Oh.

        I tell you what….let’s let your neighbor compost human waste in his back yard and then see if you want government to intervene from noxious odors floating on your property. (but that’s different, you might say…well, that’s the whole point of this whole ‘will of the people’ vs. ‘will of the person’ thing)

        • Joshua Morris says:

          What if you’re my neighbor and I don’t like the way your back deck looks? What if the enjoyment of my property is hindered by the odor coming from your dryer vent or from your fireplace? What if? What if? What if? This can get really stupid. The line must be drawn at actual damage to another’s person or property. If someone’s enjoyment is hindered by some noise (especially if it was there before the complainant moved in) or some odor, there are other places in this world to live. Freedom means I have a choice to leave a situation I don’t like. It does not mean that I can control everyone around me for my own enjoyment.

          If my neighbor is composting human waste and he can prove that it poses no health risk to the property or people around him, I guess he has the right to do so. Ask the folks in White County, GA.

          • CobbGOPer says:

            Not worth continuing the argument. Mr. Smallz is obviously president of his homeowner’s association.

            • bgsmallz says:

              Riiight…

              Just because I don’t believe the concept of limited government means that my personal liberties are more important than yours when they conflict with each other means I must be the head of an HOA.

              • CobbGOPer says:

                I’m just saying I can easily picture you standing in my driveway every other day to inform me that my grass is one quarter of an inch too tall, and that if I don’t start cutting it shorter you’re going to fine me.

          • gcp says:

            Noise and other quality of life ordinances may not be necessary in rural areas but they are needed in metro areas. That’s why we have them. I referred to “excessive noise” which includes dogs that bark most of the day and night, not to children playing in the yard. There has to be limits when ones actions intrude on another person’s ability to live in peace on his property.

          • bgsmallz says:

            “Freedom means I have a choice to leave a situation I don’t like.”

            You mean like moving to a jurisdiction with looser restrictions on chickens or buying the surrounding property? Derp.

            If you want to make the argument that the government has deprived you or the chicken man of life, liberty, or property without due process, be my guest. You’d lose.

            My point is this isn’t really about limited government. This is about not wanting to have to balance your personal liberty with your neighbors. To which I would say…move someplace with no neighbors.

            • Cassandra says:

              Are you the President of a local moving company, bgsmallz?

              The argument goes to bgsmallz as we find ourselves more densely populated. And yet, a man died, violently, because a ‘just body of rulemakers’ decided.

              I keep thinking where would I move?

              • bgsmallz says:

                Cassie-

                Not saying to move…just saying you are free to move.

                Anyway, have a nice day. I’m going to leave this one alone for at least 24-48 hours!

                • Cassandra says:

                  All well said, bgsmallz. My last comment more tongue in cheek.

                  Detailed issue that ultimately reminds me of the premise behind movie plot of “Cool Hand Luke” or being imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread….

                  Be well!

            • abmagic says:

              smallz – does your position change if Wordes was making his livelihood through sale of the poultry and or poultry goods (like eggs)? If he was, and he established his business legally (at the time of formation poultry was allowed with no limits on number), and the government subsequently changed the law, wouldn’t that be a deprivation of property? Serious question here, not just trying to stir the pot.

              • bgsmallz says:

                You mean sort of like if the person in question purchased land with clay deposits on it with the express intent of making bricks on the land and then when his property was annexed wasn’t able to make bricks anymore on the property because of a city ordinance?

                Well…that was Haddacheck v. Sebastian, which was a unanimous opinion of the court that the ordinance was a proper exercise in police power and not a regulatory taking. That was in 1915…of course, the real case to look at is Penn Coal in 1922.

                Look, I’m not a con law expert, but the basic issue here about the ordinance that you are asking is does it constitute a regulatory taking? Because, remember, the 5th amendment allows the government to exercise eminent domain…and prior to 1922, there was pretty much a clear answer that a regulatory taking was not a taking under the 5th amendment and instead was a valid use of governmental police power…since Penn Coal, there is at least a level of regulatory action that rises to a taking (Penn Coal) and a level of regulatory action that is a total taking (Lucas v. South Carolina).

                However…I think the interesting quote on zoning comes from Justice Rehnquist in his dissent over the Penn Station ruling… Again…this is Justice Rehnquist, not some hippie, talking about zoning:

                “typical zoning restrictions may, it is true, so limit the prospective uses of a piece of property as to diminish the value of that property in the abstract because it may not be used for the forbidden purposes. But any such abstract decrease in value will more than likely be at least partially offset by an increase in value which flows from similar restrictions as to use on neighboring properties. All property owners in a designated area are placed under the same restrictions, not only for the benefit of the municipality as a whole, but also for the common benefit of one another. In the words of Mr. Justice Holmes, speaking for the Court in Pennsylvania Coal Co. v. Mahon, 260 U.S. 393, 415 (1922), there is “an average reciprocity of advantage.””

  4. SallyForth says:

    Charlie, I also remember the days you describe and how life was before people starting moving here from everywhere else and got busy changing things to be like all the places they came from. One of my peeves is remembering church hayrides to Stone Mountain when I was a kid, the freedom to have cookouts at the base and climb the big rock, etc. – then having to sadly see what government has done over the last decade to destroy that natural beauty of that State Park by letting a big corporation turn it into “Dollywood South.” It is a striking example of how people running our state now do not have a sense of place and love for all that is Georgia, but instead destroy and replace with junk to the tune of cha-ching.

    Today’s Republican Party is not the one of our grandparents’ day, but instead has proven to be the party of ever-expanding government invasion into our lives, as you describe. Your words bear repeating: “How trivial are the levels to which we will try to regulate and micro-manage each other’s lives?” and “The Republican party of limited government appears equally lost to those who see the power of government and wish to use it to control others to be what they want them to be.”

    Democrats were not perfect in their governance of our state, but those conservative-to-moderate Dems sure did better than the accelerated government encroachment during the past ten years of Republican rule. Damned if I know what to do, how to get people to wake up and stop drinking the kool-aid. Rest in peace, Roswell Chicken Man, along with the Georgia that too few of us can even remember.

  5. ieee says:

    U.S. citizens want big government with few limits. As long as it is affecting people other than themselves, that is.

    The SEX OFFENDER Registries are a great example of nanny big government. Not only do most U.S. citizens love the Registries, they are totally willing to sacrifice most American ideals if it means that people listed on the Registries can be harassed more. Most citizens seem unhappy that any laws or other constructs (e.g. the U.S. Constitution) occasionally stand in the way of having more harassment laws.

    The sad fact is that government must grow and more Registries must be created. There is no legitimate excuse to have the harassing SEX OFFENDER Registries and not have millions more convicted dangerous felons listed on other Registries. As it stands today, the SEX OFFENDER Registries are immoral and the people who zealously support them are nothing but terrorists and criminals. Creating the rest of the Registries will help correct that a slight bit.

  6. exador says:

    According to the article, Wordes began raising chickens in 2005. City life did not come to him. He decided to raise livestock in an established, suburban neighborhood.

    • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

      If it is true that Wordes didn’t began raising chickens until 2005, then, unfortunately, he was in the wrong.

  7. SallyForth says:

    How so? There was actually a public class last week in Decatur, teaching people to be “urban backyard chicken owners” in order to have organic eggs.

  8. FactsPlease says:

    Andrew did not spend one day in jail because of chickens! Chickens were legal in Roswell. This had nothing to do with chickens!

  9. FactsPlease says:

    Andrew was grandfathered, and did not have to comply with the new chicken laws anyway. This had nothing to do with chickens, but it made the story sound good.

  10. ZazaPachulia says:

    Another excellent column, Charlie. I too couldn’t help but think about Fayette when I read the sad news about the Chicken Man.

    Peachtree City might be the most Republican-voting city in the state, but you are going to be hard pressed to find another community with stricter zoning laws, a more robust police presence (per capita), higher property taxes, more government services or more tedious and expensive variance proceses. If you dropped a family that recently immigrated from a former Soviet Republic into Peachtree City and demanded that they attend all the city council and various commission meetings, they’d probably imagine that they were living in some leftist paradise–a very strong and meddling government, but in a community of wealth, manicured highways and the like… unless they wanted to raise a goat.. or have more than three household pets. That certainly wouldn’t be allowed.

  11. elfiii says:

    Outstanding article Charlie. I grew up a block from Lenox Square before it was Lenox Square. Chamblee, where I live now was “the country” and Duluth (pronounced “Do-Looth” by real Duluthians) was “the deep country”.

    The steady creep of government interference through municipal zoning and property maintenance codes is choking private property rights.

    One of the things I have noticed over the years is as the codes have become more invasive, there has been a corollary increase in the local population of Damn Yankees. My evidence is purely anecdotal but suggests a strong connection between the two.

    Mr. Wordes was a freedom fighter. Rest in peace Mr. Wordes!

  12. saltycracker says:

    Another idealistic, sure wish we could go back to rural Georgia and all just get along post.
    Wasn’t Wordes allowed to have 6 egg laying hens to enjoy his less than one acre residential life ?
    Or was he dissatisfied he couldn’t keep 100 stinkin’, crowin’ chickens to attract varmits, ignore the community ordinance & drive at least one complaintant wild ?

    Getting along in a high density City is a bit different and the diversity of cultures and lifestyles requires a few rules of the game.

    Why do folks move into or reject a compromise, in an ordinance or Covenants restricted area and unilaterally declare they don’t like it and are ready to die fighting the community agreement ?

    Individualism is diminished in circumstances that involve a material threat or nuisance to another. English law has always involved restrictions.
    The challenge for communities (not outsiders) is how much restriction is too much.

    For Roswell, 6 fowls on a city residential lot of less than an acre is enough. Respect it or change it, meanwhile live with it.

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