An open letter to Islanders on residential standards | Letter

On April 5, I attended the Mercer Island Planning Commission’s public hearing on the proposed revisions to the residential development standards; changes that will significantly affect every resident by imposing further restriction on what can be done with our property.

The commission attempts to justify its actions as being done in the name of “community values.” Well then, just what exactly are those values? As I listened to one person after another speak about their views, I discovered that there is no such thing! For example:

– Some people want to preserve trees on the island for a variety of reasons. Other people want to be able to remove them from their property, again for any number of reasons.

– Some people are concerned with older trees. Some are concerned with young trees. Some with both.

– Some people expressed concern about homes being built on the island that were “too large.” Others complained about being restricted from building the size of home that they desired on their property.

– Some people saw the variance process as vitally necessary while others though it an inequity favoring some people or groups over others.

– Some people thought that “builders” were gaming the system. Others thought that “the system” itself was a game of arbitrary hoops and barriers that unnecessarily imposed onerous fees and delays while significantly driving up construction costs.

– A number of people were concerned with the loss of their property value resulting from the new regulations and restrictions. Others were concerned about the rapidly rising cost of housing. Still others were concerned about the cost/value impact upon specific groups such as seniors.

– Some were primarily concerned about the environment while others were primarily concerned about the limitations that new setback, lot coverage, height limits, daylight and landscaping requirements, etc. would impose on their current or future plans.

– Some people expressed concern over the “ugliness” of some buildings that have been built. Others championed the right of anyone to pursue and build their dream home without interference.

These were just some of the viewpoints raised.

So where in this list are the “community values” to be found? There was nothing close to a group consensus expressed on any single issue let alone the entire standard being proposed. Yet, every speaker passionately addressed values most important to them.

The answer is that “community values” are a fiction. Values are something that only individual people possess in relation to the specific context of their own lives—a context that is unique. Yet this obvious fact will be ignored by the Planning commission and City Council as they make the ultimate determination of what new restrictions to impose, by force, upon the rest of us—restrictions that will be uniformly applied to everyone across the board, completely indifferent to the unique circumstances of our lives and to our right for self-determination and the exercise of control over our own property.

We are not uniform mass-produced widgets, but unique individuals and should be treated as such. There is no single “community” that can be addressed by a single “standard.” There are as many value systems as there are people, and the genius of American society and its constitutional republic was that it addressed this fundamental truth through the enlightenment principle, so well expressed in the Declaration of Independence, that we each possess unalienable rights including life, liberty and the pursuit of our own definition of happiness

Each of these rights are currently abridged by the imposition of existing building and zoning regulations.

Let’s not compound the problem further by heaping on another toxic load of restrictions and thereby transferring even more control to a bureaucracy that has zero understanding of or concern over your personal circumstances. You, and you alone, are the only one capable of acting in your own best interest.

Upon exiting the 1787 Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin was asked, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin’s answer: “A republic, if you can keep it.”

The path of least resistance is to sit back and accept whatever is imposed upon us. What Franklin understood and expressed in his answer was the profound fact that liberty and personal sovereignty don’t just “happen.” To “keep it” requires effort. So to all Mercer Island residents, I ask that you don’t let your autonomy simply slip away. Stand up, state that your life is your own, and demand that your rights, including your property rights, be respected.

Start by opposing the current revisions to the zoning standards which amount to a clear “taking” of your property value without compensation. Then take the next step and demand that more control be ceded back from the city to the individual. Yes, it requires work, but is there anything more important than standing up for oneself? I believe so and hope you agree.

C. Jeffery Small

Mercer Island