by Steven Hill

This article is from the author's monthly column called "Global Villager," published in The Fishwrapper.

One day recently I drove up the new road that winds to the top of Chuckanut Mountain. I wanted to see up close the construction of new homes that had been transforming the side of this beautiful mountain into an eyesore.

I saw some palaces riveted into the side of the mountain. Each one was large enough to be a permanent shelter for all the homeless of Bellingham. I took a left and drove down a very long, reclusive driveway. At the end I discovered the object of my search: the specific palace whose lights I could see every night from my little apartment, the one that broke the lovely sea of darkness I used to enjoy whenever I gazed up at the Chuckanuts at night. I stayed for a few minutes, took in the breathtaking view of the valley, the Cascades, the Bay, I-5. There was obviously nobody home, and I felt no rush to leave.

The silence was interrupted suddenly by the sound of a Cherokee Jeep coming up the drive way behind me. The drivers, a man and a woman, rolled down their window.

"Hey, what are you doing here -- this is private property!"

Private property. Private property. Those words rang in my head long after I withdrew from their mountain sanctuary. And they still burn in my memory today.

Private ownership is considered sacred in this country. The philosophy of the United States has always been that whomever owns a piece of property has the right to do whatever they wish with that property. For the most part regardless of how it affects others. But the shortcomings of that philosophy are becoming more apparent everyday, as we watch lush, verdant Whatcom County over-developed and sold right out from under us. Our elected officials, some of whom are well-meaning (and others of whom go to work for developers like Trillium Corporation after their stint as city officials, like former Mayor Ken Hertz), say there is little they can do to stop it, other than order an Environmental Impact Statement or two. But that only slows it down a bit, or scales back a project. The advance of the bulldozers seems unrelenting.

Private property rights are protected and guaranteed. Private property rights are an extension of our conception of individual rights, the Bill of Rights, the U.S. Constitution itself. The guarantee of these rights was considered essential by the Founding Fathers to protect individuals and businesses from royal tyranny and interference.

Yet today there is an additional threat from rich people and elites who think they can do whatever they want with their private property -- which they own, oh, quite a whole lot of. I sense a need for our society to begin to articulate and legally codify a concept of community rights that will be a counter-balance to the already-ingrained and codified credo of individual rights, especially the individual property rights of those who own a lot of property.

Shouldn't all of the citizens of Bellingham, who have basked in the grace and beauty of the Chuckanuts for generations -- indeed for hundreds of years -- have had some decision-making power about whether or not the side of that mountain could be sold to the highest bidder and razed? I'm not just talking about public input at some perfunctory public hearing -- I'm talking about actual jurisdiction and authority. Shouldn't there be some legal framework for a community to assert its rights above the rights of the corporate owners of a nuclear power plant, or of a pulp and paper mill, or of a mountaintop? Shouldn't a community have the legal right to prevent a corporation from just picking up and moving whenever the corporation finds cheaper labor in Mexico or the Phili ppines, after that corporation chose to set down in their community and hooked the residents and local economy into the jobs it provides?

I swear, these wealthy bluebloods act like cyclones in our communities. They set down and pick up at will, exercising their individual rights all over everyone else, leaving a path of destruction in their wake. They blame it on international competition, on the Invisible Hand of the free market, on anything but themselves and their own free will and greed. And they always try to convince us that it's for our own good, or for the "national interest," instead of their own narrow self-interest.

"We the people" should have rights as communities as well as individuals. And right now it just doesn't exist. The rich individuals with the money control nearly everything, including the political process.

I don't know about you, but I'm pretty sick of it.

Private Property and Democracy Free Speech and Democracy Representation and Democracy Gender, Competition and Democracy About The Author