Monday, June 19, 2006

Clutter: Property Right or Police Power Trigger?

   My father has told me the story (Happy Father’s Day, Dad!) of, when he got into the cutting-edge world of computers in the 1960s, how people predicted the arrival of the  “paperless office.”  Ha ha.  Computers have simply created more paper than ever before, especially for lawyers.  What happens when a lawyer piles up too much paper in his apartment office, creating a potential fire hazard?  Does a citizen have a property right to be messy, or does the police power justify government action?
   From Arlington, Virginia, comes a story about a lawyer who was evicted from his condo for too much paper … and other junk.  A problem with anti-“hoarding” laws is, of course, that they hold the potential for inconsistent, unfair, and selective enforcement.  In today’s relatively safe cities, however, we can forget how dominant was the fear of fire in the development of modern land use laws.  In addition to creating a fire hazard, too much clutter can make it difficult for emergency responders to provide assistance and to get in and out safely.  The biggest problem I have with the Virginia story is that the government officials apparently evicted the lawyer immediately, without giving him some time to “cure” his clutter problem.  He is, of course, suing the government ….

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