The connection between firewood length and the city’s character

By JAYSON JACOBY Baker City Herald May 21, 2009 03:31 pm

Baker City officials are kicking around the idea of what constitutes the character of the city’s neighborhoods.

And by character they don’t mean whether the streets are smooth or the sewer pipes flow unimpeded or the fire trucks can get through the alleys, which are the sorts of things I expect cities to fret about.

They are instead talking about what homes and garages and other private property look like.

This seems to me an unhealthy interest for anyone to take who has the legal authority to decide whose property has attained the proper character and whose has not.

It is I believe a judgment better left to architects, artists and others who deal regularly in aesthetic matters. They can of course come across as insufferable snobs, but since they can’t also approve ordinances I don’t much care what they think about the condition of my siding.

I can shrug off insults about how I keep up my place, or don’t. But I don’t know that I’d like to live in a place where the government can fine me 500 bucks a day until I repaint my fence because somebody thinks its flaking slats are “materially detrimental to nearby properties and significantly out of character with the surrounding neighborhood.”

I copied the part between the quotation marks from a proposed property maintenance code the City Council is considering.

It is an interesting document.

Some of it is law already, and much of it seems reasonable to me.

People shouldn’t, for instance, leave old refrigerators lying about with the doors still on them.

Nor do I object to the city’s effort to rid our neighborhoods of nuisances, and here again I quote the proposed ordinance: “which are harmful or deleterious to the public health, safety and welfare.”

My daughter likes to scamper around the yard with her shoes off, and I don’t want her stepping in toxic sludge that leaked over from the neighbor’s.

But there’s also quite a lot of new stuff in the proposed ordinance, much of which seems to me intended to protect people’s sensibilities rather than their organs. This is a vastly different goal, and one for which the government, in my view, is poorly suited. Some of these regulations read to me more like the covenants enforced by a private homeowners’ association than the statutory standards of a city.

According to the section titled “Accumulation, Storage and Placement of Items,” a property owner runs afoul of the ordinance if he owns a building or a fence that is “maintained in such condition as to become so defective, unsightly, or in such condition of deterioration or disrepair that the same causes depreciation of the values of surrounding property or is materially detrimental to nearby properties and is significantly out of character with the surrounding neighborhood.”

That sentence covers a lot of ground, none of which has anything to do with whether I might get cancer from the junk pile next door.

(Another thing that sentence covers a lot of is the thesaurus page devoted to depressing words that start with a “d.”)

The deficiency in the section, as I see it, is that it lists three measures by which a property is to be judged, yet only one of those criteria can be deemed, even by generous definition, as objective.

And even that one — “causes depreciation of the values of surrounding property — seems to me a stretch.

I’d prefer the city didn’t spend any time, or money, trying to prove that somebody’s house would be worth more if only his neighbor would replace his shingles, which have been curled like Frito’s since the Clinton administration.

I suppose I ought to feel flattered, or at least comforted, that the city thinks propping up the value of my property and protecting the character of my neighborhood are tasks worthy of legislation.

Except what if the city decides the property that needs the government’s help isn’t mine, but my neighbor’s, and further that it’s my dilapidated and uncharacteristic fence that’s to blame?

It seems to me that the city’s interest in my property values ought to reach only as far as the edge of the street, and specifically that there aren’t any big potholes to wreck a prospective buyer’s shock absorbers when he drives by to look at the place.

The language in the rest of the section has about it the sort of general murkiness that always troubles me when it’s part of a law.

What, after all, constitutes “materially detrimental?”

And how is the city supposed to conclude which places in a neighborhood are “out of character?”

If my walls are pristine but my neighbor’s could use a thorough sanding and a fresh coat of paint, should the city have the authority to tell my neighbor to go buy a wire brush and a couple gallons of exterior latex?

A few sections in the proposed ordinance made me laugh aloud, although my mirth was tinged with unease.

The city thinks, for instance, that you should be allowed to store firewood outside of a building on your property, but only if the firewood is “stacked and useable.”

The ordinance doesn’t define stacked but I presume, given the document’s emphasis on avoiding any sort of unsightliness, that simply tossing chunks of pine from a pickup bed would not suffice.

On the subject of “useable,” however, the city is quite specific.

“ ‘Useable’ firewood,” according to the proposed ordinance, “has more wood than rot and is cut to lengths that will fit a lawful fireplace or wood stove on the premises.”

Now I don’t as a rule lend any credence to crackpot theories about how the government is on the verge of prying from the American citizen’s hands the last dim vestiges of his freedoms.

But when I read in a proposed law a sentence like the one just above, it occurs to me that perhaps the conspiracy nuts didn’t craft their entire manifestos from whole cloth.

I just can’t figure why any official would propose a law which, if it is to be properly and fairly enforced, requires the government to test firewood for soundness and to carry around a tape measure with which to gauge the dimensions of wood stoves.

It seems to me the city ought to have faith enough in its residents to trust that those who stack firewood on their properties intend to burn it, and that they will make the necessary arrangements to ensure the stovelengths actually fit in the stove.

In the end, I don’t believe any of the city officials who has worked on the proposed property maintenance ordinance harbors sinister intentions.

Their goal, I’m certain, is admirable and worthwhile, and one I share: to help make Baker City an attractive place.

Yet I hope the City Council, which has the final say in the matter, agrees with me that sometimes we can’t achieve our goals — even the admirable ones — and still preserve a man’s right to saw his firewood to whichever length suits him.

I don’t like to look at shoddily maintained houses, either. But I’ve noticed that almost all of what I would call eyesores don’t actually make my eyes sore.

I want the government to spare me a visit to the optometrist.

But I can get along without laws that protect me from ugly.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.