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Away From Home

Friday, June 24, 2005

Nuisance question

Let's suppose that Koch Industries buys the land right next to your house, and proceeds to open an oil refinery. Like all refineries, this one is noisy, loud, dirty, and fills the sky with smoke.

Do you have the right to go to court and get the refinery to stop?

The current answer to this question is Yes. The refinery is what's called a "nuisance," and because it prevents you from enjoying your property, you can get an injunction to stop it. [Note: The aforementioned sentence is greatly oversimplified.]

But here's my question: Is this proper? Should the law be this way?

Getting an injunction against the refinery would mean that the refinery has to shut down. (I know of no way to operate an oil refinery without being noisy, loud, dirty, and smelly.) Therefore, society would lose the benefit of the hundreds or thousands of jobs supplied by the refinery. Society would also lose the processed oil that the refinery could have been supplying to the market. Not only would there be fewer jobs, but there would be higher oil and gas prices.

All because you "got there first." Your personal, subjective benefit of being able to use some small piece of land has just caused public, objective harm to society.

You selfish weasel.

Instead, shouldn't the law promote that which is best for the whole of society, and permit the refinery?


  • Ah, the eternal struggle between property rights in the classic liberal sense and the realist socialism used to justify bad community planning.

    I know what you're thinking... "C'mon, Chris, tell us how you really feel." I shall, but now I have pages to design.

    By Blogger ChrisHarrop, at 6/24/2005 05:29:00 PM  

  • Well, Scott, let's look at this like we do the filibuster. True, the one family in their home is the minority, but don't they have the right to be happy even though the rest of their world wants oil; just like the democrats are the minority but shouldn't they get their say even though the rest of congress wants uber-conservative judges?

    Also, the family has already paid to build their home. You think it's perfectly ok to let big businesses come along and smoosh out the little houses.

    Geez, Scott, that's how I'd expect a Republican to think. :P

    By Blogger Logan C. Adams, at 6/24/2005 07:55:00 PM  

  • Logan, even the Senate recognizes the damaging effects of the lone holdout. Filibusters can be broken by supermajority, after all. What my hypothetical raised was the example of a single homeowner.

    You do realize that the rail network, the interstate highway system, and many other projects would never have existed if society recognized the unassailable right of the lone holdout, right?

    What if the law required that Koch Industries buy you another home someplace else? Or do you contend that your very subjective, very self-concerned feelings will always trump societal gain?

    By Blogger Scott, at 6/24/2005 09:08:00 PM  

  • Note also that I have not necessarily stated my personal beliefs on this matter.

    By Blogger Scott, at 6/24/2005 09:10:00 PM  

  • Sorry if my comments came off as personally harsh, they weren't intended to be. My bad.

    Ok, let's say I own a house. Thus, it's probably in a place zoned for residential use, not industrial. Now, would a company even want to put an oil refinery very close to someone's home, considering the possible liability if by-products of oil refinement harm them?

    Also, oil refineries have a rather strong tendency to be somewhat explosive. If someone wants to build such a place, they would probably want to get it out far away from people. I mean, giving your neighbors cancer is the crappiest publicity.

    By Blogger Logan C. Adams, at 6/24/2005 09:59:00 PM  

  • The hypothetical assumes that the refinery exists, and therefore, that it somehow made business sense to the company to put it there. Arguments contending that it makes no business sense to put a refinery there are irrelevant.

    Besides, suppose this is a farm we're talking about, and so you're the only homeowner that's being affected.

    The point of the hypothetical is that the refinery exists and you're being impacted by it, so what should happen?

    By Blogger Scott, at 6/24/2005 10:03:00 PM  

  • IMHO, the refinery should purchase your home for fair market value, pay your expenses for a realtor, a lawyer, and moving, as well as a fee for the trouble they've caused you, but they get to pay the movers (or, if you move yourself, reimburse you what it would have cost to hire movers), the realtor, and the lawyer directly, and the fee should have a cap of $10k to $20k. Also, if you've suffered any medical expenses due to their plant, they should pay those, plus interest. If you refuse to sell your home or move under the above outlined plan, then that's your problem and you aren't entitled to anything. Further, if you moved into a property knowing that a company was planning to build a large plant next door, I believe you have forfeited your right to compensation. Businesses have rights too, you know, and the rights of a single property owner are no more or less important than those of a business.

    By Blogger Mela, at 6/24/2005 11:10:00 PM  

  • Pray it's downwind of you, first of all.

    Second, if you could make a case that since you had carved out a living for yourself there you already you have a right to stay there. If we allow a person's home to be wiped out just because a better public good might occur by the new tenant, then we are taking away any reason for any citizen to try to create a stable life and pay taxes.

    If my house can just be knocked down because someone bigger likes my land, then I won't become a homeowner. I won't become a stable upstanding citizen, nor will a larger number of people. Suddenly, things don't look so good for the community.

    I can guarantee you this: I most certainly don't want to be a part of a community that I can't trust to let me be.

    By Blogger Logan C. Adams, at 6/24/2005 11:12:00 PM  

  • Mela and Logan, the refinery doesn't want your land. It has the adjacent land.

    Mela, your proposal forces the refinery to purchase land that they don't want from someone who doesn't want to sell. How does that make sense? Why should the law contribute to the forced redistribution of property, especially when it's resisted on both sides?

    And Logan, are you really saying that, given this choice:

    a) Be an upstanding citizen with the off-chance that someone might use the adjacent property for an undesirable purpose; or
    b) Become a transient hobo

    That you (and an "increasing number of people") would choose B?

    You all think that you're protecting property rights. Actually, you're restricting them. Both of you want to place restrictions on how Koch Industries, a legal, rightful property owner, can use their land.

    And why? Because one person doesn't like what you're doing.

    Remember, what goes around comes around. You may someday be in the position of the refinery -- using your land, completely legally, and being shut down because one person doesn't like it.

    By Blogger Scott, at 6/25/2005 11:55:00 AM  

  • It's not as much a matter of not liking it as not wanting to have one's life suck as a result of it, though. They have the right to do whatever they want on their land, but that right ends at the property line. If the effects of whatever they are doing, i.e. noise, pollution, or spawning of angry herds of rabid lemurs that pillage your home, then you have a say about what they do.

    By Blogger Logan C. Adams, at 6/25/2005 03:30:00 PM  

  • Logan, what "effects" would qualify?

    For instance, let's say you bought some land because it had a fantastic view into a nearby forest. You build your house so that the panel-glass windows of your living room face directly out into the wilderness.

    Suddenly I come along and purchase the land at the edge of the forest, and want to build a house of my own. Now your living room will have a great view of my house.

    Can you stop me from building?

    Or, let's go back to the original hypothetical. What if the only complaint you had with the refinery was that it was loud? Or that it resulted in having trucks drive down the road in front of your house?

    In none of these instances is there an actual physical effect on your property. In no way are they directly or indirectly touching you or any part of your property. Every effect is purely subjective.

    Should you still be able to stop it?

    By Blogger Scott, at 6/25/2005 03:40:00 PM  

  • You do realize that the rail network, the interstate highway system, and many other projects would never have existed if society recognized the unassailable right of the lone holdout, right?

    To some degree, that's true. But how many rights the lone holdout has seems to depend on their wealth/political influence.

    In my hometown, Worcester, MA, the govt built I-290 through the city in the 1960s (?), slicing apart long-established neighborhoods but creating this huge S-curve around Fitton Field simply because it was owned by Holy Cross College. Logistically, it would've been a LOT easier, less expensive, and (for drivers) less dangerous to build the road through that field, but the college & Catholic Church got their wish instead.

    Remember, what goes around comes around. You may someday be in the position of the refinery -- using your land, completely legally, and being shut down because one person doesn't like it.

    What about the long-term interests of everyone? In this case, I think the "nimby" attitude can be supported by the fact that 1) oil refining is in fact a toxic and dangerous practice in which there will almost certainly be some accidents/spills, and 2) in the not too distant future oil supplies will become a problem, probably causing the refinery to close and leaving the community with a huge mess to clean up that will likely outweigh the economic benefits of having had it there.

    In those ways, the refinery is very definitely impacting the neighbor "directly or indirectly."

    Real planning would consider the long-term impact of such development, not just the economic benefits (which are almost always narrowly defined) it can create now. Part of the problem is that land is considered "property" rather than a community resource that should be in some sense shared (even if, on paper, one person or business "owns" it) because it will still be there LONG after the "owner" has died or gone bankrupt.

    By Blogger Jay Denari, at 6/28/2005 03:41:00 PM  

  • Jay, sure, some entities get their way more often than others do (your Catholic church example). This doesn't mean they have more "rights" than you or I do. It means they have more influence. If you can come up with a way to reduce their influence, I'm all ears.

    The second part of your post is pure speculation. First you criticize the placement of the refinery, on the speculation that there will be an accident or a spill affecting your land. [I added "affecting your land" in order to make your statement applicable to the debate at hand -- what the refinery does to its own land doesn't matter here. They could set the whole thing on fire or pave the whole thing over; it wouldn't matter to this debate.] There is no guarantee that this will happen, or that the refinery will become a waste "in the not too distant future." Who's to say that the refinery couldn't be converted into a natural gas, water purification, or solar-collecting facility?

    You go on to further advocate speculation -- "Real planning would consider the long-term impact of such development."

    Such ideals are nice in academia. They don't work in the real world. Business needs profits now, to pay salaries, rents, dividends, etc. Politicians need results now, to get re-elected.

    Part of the problem is that land is considered "property" rather than a community resource that should be in some sense shared

    They tried that. It was called communism.

    By Blogger Scott, at 6/28/2005 07:11:00 PM  

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