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The Tyranny of the Tiny

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Libertarian minds reel when considering the loss of liberty here in the United States. There is the ever-growing intrusion of the federal government into the daily lives of men and women, revealing a gross disregard for constitutional guarantees.

We’ve been inundated with examples recently. The effect of Supreme Court decisions and FBI directives can lead us to anger or bring a chilling unease as we wonder what might be next.

It’s easy to focus on what comes out of Washington. Decisions made on the national level affect everyone, the 300 million-plus U.S. citizens as well as the rest of the world. The federal government is the 800-pound gorilla in the room, at home and abroad. Not only are we being spied upon in violation of the Constitution, but the value of our money and our ability to save and invest are being destroyed by fiscal policy while the government’s foreign policy is one of destruction to people, places, and things. It makes enemies; it wages war and we are not any safer.

We also need to pay attention to what happens locally. The news out of Iowa about renters needing to provide apartment keys to the fire department in Cedar Falls is one case in point.

Another example comes from Dallas, Texas, where the city enacted an ordinance limiting window signs for retail businesses to 15 percent of the window area and no sign may be in the upper two-thirds of a window. The statute also prohibits signs that cover more than 25 percent of a building façade.

The Institute for Justice filed a lawsuit on behalf of a few businesses, but the city played hardball and threatened those retailers with fines of $300,000 if they didn’t drop the suit. The word extortion definitely comes to mind.

Cities such as Dallas and Cedar Falls are not unique in their intrusiveness. Even small townships in southeastern Pennsylvania have ordinances that interfere with personal rights.

Chadds Ford Township won’t allow a motorcycle dealership to park its trucks with company name in front of the shop because supervisors deem that as signage in excess of what ordinances allow.

Even changing the name on a sign requires approval from the Zoning Hearing Board and if the business is in the historic district, it needs approval from the Historic and Architectural Review Board. HARBs also tell homeowners in historic districts what colors they may use to paint their shutters. Any municipality with a HARB is over-regulated.

No business has asked for flashing neon signs or to light up the night sky with their names. They just want to let people know who they are, what they have to offer, and when they’re open.

The aversion to signs is ridiculous. One supervisor always looks for signs tacked to utility poles as he drives around the township. One Easter Sunday he was running around with a stepladder, climbing up and down, removing those nasty signs. Most were from small businesses trying to get their names out as cheaply as possible. It seems an odd way to spend Easter Morning.

When the economy turned upside down, township supervisors finally lightened up a little. Since 2009, some businesses may have a small, A-frame sign in front of their stores during business hours as long as the signs meet certain size specifications, they are taken in at night, and the owner pays a fee of $125.

It’s not just a matter of an anti-business climate. It’s a disregard for the Constitution.

Several years ago, Chadds Ford supervisors enacted a noise ordinance that contains a clause prohibiting congregating at the township building unless there is an authorized public event there. When the township solicitor told the supervisors’ chairman — the aforementioned sign-remover — that such a clause could be challenged as a violation of the First Amendment guarantee of free assembly, the chairman said he didn’t care. The clause remains on the books.

Property rights don’t matter either. These same supervisors decided that the owner of a five-acre property. for example, doesn’t necessarily have five acres if he wants to subdivide. Steep slopes and stream areas must be removed from the calculations when determining lot sizes for subdivision. So, in a zoning district with a two-acre minimum lot size, a five-acre property with 1.1 acres of steep slopes, wetlands and other net outs can’t be subdivided because the total net out brings the lot size down to less than four acres. Landowners of larger properties lose even more value. Owners must still pay taxes on the full acreage though.

Chadds Ford isn’t alone in its intrusiveness. Neighboring Birmingham Township has an ordinance regulating the size of leaves on a tree in a residential yard, and supervisors can force a tree removed if it hasn’t grown the way it supposed to grow within its first year.

Don’t even think about putting up a fence around a flower garden without permission and if you want to erect a swing set in your own yard for your own kids you’ll probably have to go to the zoning board.

Overregulation of society comes from local government as well as state and federal. As one area resident said, it’s “the tyranny of tiny rules and regulations.”

A year later that same resident became a supervisor who, like all other supervisors, now works to uphold all township ordinances, even the tiny tyrannical ones.

One of the ironies is that the 1777 Battle of Brandywine was fought in Birmingham and Chadds Ford townships. Boards of supervisors and members of HARBs fight to keep paint colors, building design, and open space true to that time period, yet they ignore what the war was all about — freedom from government intrusion.

So, while we keep an eye on Capitol Hill, we also need to keep an eye on city and township halls — and we need to fight all of them when they intrude on our liberty.

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    Rich Schwartzman is managing editor at Chadds Ford Live in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania.