Monday, December 29, 2008

Mother Nature Vs. Property Laws

A new report by the US Geological Survey (USGS) says that the next few decades could see "rapid" ice melting in the arctic and a major rise in sea levels. The News Journal ran an article covering the report here along with a cool interactive map that shows how the Delaware coastline would change as sea levels rise. That map can be found here.

Now, let's put aside the whole "global warming" debate for a moment and just assume that the report is accurate. We can argue later about what's causing it, but it looks like the arctic ice is indeed melting and sea levels are indeed rising. The real question is what happens when the seas rise and ultimately overtake what is now dry land?

This is where things get tricky. You see, like in most states, individuals cannot own the water. Delaware law allows property boundaries on the coastline to extend as far down as the low tide line (check out the Delaware Coastal Zone Act for reference). But what happens to a beach property when the low tide line reaches well onto, or even over, the property lot lines? Does that property simply cease to exist? Does the property owner simply lose the right to any land? As far as the law is concerned, I think the answer is yes. This means, among other things, billions of dollars of lost property and rent value for Delawareans and billions more in lost property tax revenue and tourism revenue.

One way to look at this problem is from the economic point of view. Like any other investment, property comes with risk. Flood, fire, sea rise...these are all risks involved with getting into the game of owning property. If the risks begin to increase with the threat of rising seas, property owners will simply have to choose whether to stay "in the market" or sell their property and invest in something else while they have the luxury to do so. For those that do hold onto their beach properties, they'll have to be okay with the idea that someday their investment will be gone, stuck under a few feet of seawater.

Another way to look at this issue is from the political point of view. For many years, taxpayers have reduced the risks of property ownership on the beach by paying for beach replenishment and dune construction. In my view, these are wasteful programs that simply delay the inevitable. "Polishing the brass on the titanic," so to speak. When these programs no longer serve their purpose to hold back the rising seas and the storm surges, we'll either have to ramp up our efforts or abandon them. Sure, we can go the Netherlands route and start building dams and levees and pump trillions into projects that would either maintain or create dry land out of what would otherwise be a home for fish. In light of our economic and social problems, this kind of brass polish seems like a poor use of our tax money.

Monday, December 22, 2008

A Good Plate With Nothing On It

This comparison chart appeared today in the Washington Post, detailing the pathetic state of "state-of-the-art" voting technology. Based on this, maybe we need to outsource our voting systems to Donald Trump. But, the current focus of Diebold and the insecurity of their touch-screen voting systems seems to cover up a more fundamental and notoriously "low-tech" problem that plagues our voting system: no one votes!

Voter registration and voting numbers in the US are ridiculous. At any one time, only about 70% of Americans who can register to vote actually bother to get registered. Of of those, less than half bother to show up to vote. Children and other ineligible residents included, our elected officials--the ones who get to decide how to use trillions of our tax dollars--are voted into office by less than 20% of Americans. That's right, only one out of five of us really counts, or bothers to stand up and be counted. Local elections are even worse. Cities with tens of thousands of residents have voter roles of mere hundreds, with even fewer turning out to vote. The next time a Delaware town holds an election, take a look at the vote tallies they list in the News Journal. Absolutely absurd!

With a voting public so apathetic, so unmotivated to even voice their political opinions, does it really, truly matter that elections might be stolen or manipulated by faulty electronic voting systems?

Two quotes come to mind on this very issue.

"With great power comes great responsibility." This is that line made famous in the three Spider-Man movies. American democracy places the power to decide, the power to control the system of government, squarely in the hands of the public. This power is one of the fundamental rights granted to us by the US Constitution. But, with this right come the responsibility to use that power justly and appropriately. We all seem to act like a spoiled brat who was born rich and squanders his parents' fortune because he never appreciated all the work it took to get it. We need to reinvigorate that sense of "rights and responsibilities" in our younger generations to get them to show up and vote, and then take some measure of responsibility for what happens in Washington and in Dover.

"90% of life is just showing up." I think Woody Allen said this, and it's more true than we know. Americans' inability to "show up" when it comes to voting and participating in government activities is what can (and has in the past) lead to government leaders who abuse their power and misuse taxpayer money and resources while the public sits mindlessly in front of their TVs. Yes, I know you don't want to miss the premiere of "So you think you can dance," but just for once act like an adult and go to that Town Council meeting or school board meeting and send a message to elected leaders that we're willing to show up and be counted.

So. to bring this back to the original point...let's assume that we fixed our voting system. Let's assume that we made the voting machines secure and accountable and that we didn't have to worry about the dread "hanging chads" ever again. Even then. what's the difference? If there were a perfect election and nobody showed up, do the elected officials still get to spend your tax money? You betcha'!

Kinda' makes that tree falling in the forest question a little deeper now, doesn't it?

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Does Your Gift-Giving Shine?

Now we down here in the lower counties are not known for our quick wits, our fast pace, or our techno-savvy. But, we do have a set of fundamental values and good-natured integrity that makes us unique from the rest of the state.

We all learned the song back in Sunday School.

This little light of mine, I'm gonna' let it shine...

But does it shine when and where it matters most?

I recently watched the movie "What Would Jesus Buy," an indie documentary film produced in part by Morgan Spurlock, the man who criticized America's fast food culture in his film "Super Size Me." This time, the sights are set clearly on American consumerism and the way that it prevents us from truly celebrating the true meaning of Christmas. The main focus of the film is the exploits of Reverend Billy, a tongue-in-cheek evangelist with his own back-up chorale, as he tours (er, gets thrown out of) shopping malls across the country to promote his message. That message? Stop Shopping!

Now, I'm not here to tell you that I agree wholeheartedly with his message or his methods. But, I think there's more than a little truth in the intent and sentiment behind the circus act that is "Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping." And it's not all about Christmas.

For retailers, product manufacturers, and advertisers, the concept of giving gifts at Christmastime has become just another way to sucker us into buying whatever crap they're peddling this year. Remember how you just had to buy your kid that Cabbage Patch Kid in the 80s? And little Timmy just had to have that Playstation in the 90s. And now your tweeny-bopper just has to have that iPhone this year, right? I mean, it just wouldn't be Christmas if your kid didn't have the newest and greatest! Pshhhh.

Let's take a step back and reassess before we make with all the credit-card swiping.

Is our gift-buying and gift-giving a bad thing? I think the clear answer is no. We offer gifts to our loved ones and friends to demonstrate our affection and love for them. Most of us couldn't whittle a toothpick--let alone manufacture an XBox--with our own tools and our bare hands, so we pay money to someone else who can. That's the way our economy works in these modern times and, in moderation, it can be a wonderful thing to make a child's eyes light up on Christmas morning with fun toys and new clothes bought at the mall or store.

But, can our obsession with "buying things" for people pervert the spirit of the season? Absolutely! When we buy lots of expensive things for our kids or loved ones because, "well, that's just what you do on Christmas," then I think we lose a lot of the meaning behind the gift-giving act. The kings each brought Jesus a gift that expressed their own sincere feelings for their new "King." And, they each brought only one gift. Only three gifts!? Yup, just three. If three presents is enough for the Christ baby, it's good enough for our little imps.

And the debt factor is another thing. The kings brought Jesus gifts that they could afford. There was no Visa, no Mastercard, and no Discover. What they could not make themselves or afford in cash they did not purchase. So should we also be able to buy and give gifts that we can afford.

All of us should take stock in our own talents and skills, the "gifts" given to us by our Creator from our birth. With these we should try to fashion the gifts that we give each other, made by our own hands as He made us. This is the highest and best way for our light to shine upon those we adore and upon the world.

For everything else, there's Mastercard. I'm Kidding, I'm kidding. Just use your credit responsibly and get your kids to appreciate a small number of gifts that you can afford to give them this year...who knows what next year may bring.

BTW, you can find Revered Billy's site here.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Commons Conundrum

The News Journal's website carried (very shortly) an article today (found here) about the State's intention to sue the EPA over air quality regulations that Delaware thinks are unfair. The result could be that Delaware loses millions of dollars in federal transportation funding.

This issue brings to light a fundamental concept that plagues every government entity: the "commons" problem. Now, you could fill an entire library with the number of books and articles that define and examine this problem (the field of ecology is basically centered around this one principle), but I'll try to outline some of the key points and how they apply in this case...and how Delaware may be up the creek without a paddle on this one.

There are certain things that people need to survive, biologically speaking. Water and air are two biggies. Governments at all levels (federal, state, local) have a big role in making sure that these three things are available in sufficient quantity and quality to the people who live under their power. To do this, they use money taken from their resident taxpayers to keep the air and water and food clean and flowing free. But, when the federal or state government spends money on, say, nice clean air, people outside of their jurisdiction (people who did NOT pay taxes) end up getting some of the benefits in the form of cleaner air and cleaner water. This is the "commons" problem. Air and water systems extend well beyond the jurisdiction of any one government. And governments, like people, are selfish.

This problem works the other way too. When people in one place pollute the air with coal-fired power plants or lots of cars, the negative effects are felt by many people outside of the place that is causing the problem. This is called the tragedy of the commons, and it is the very thing that Delaware officials are whining about to the EPA. They're mad that states to the west (upwind, as it were) are polluting the air, leading to bad air quality in Delaware, and now Delaware is being held responsible.

It's a fair and valid point, to be sure. Delaware residents suffer with bad air and bad water because people and governments upstream and upwind have failed to "clean up their act." But, the problem here is the question of "who pays?" when it comes to the commons. No, Delaware cannot control what midwest states do to prevent air pollution. But, it can't just "pass the buck" when it comes to making sure its own people--its own taxpayers--have clean air.

If we give in to DNREC's logic here, we end up in a massive downward spiral of buck-passing that ends in environmental ruin. Someone somewhere someday will have to pay. If not us here now, then our grandkids (or Europe's grandkids or Asia's grandkids) tomorrow. I would rather pay for clean air in Delaware knowing that at least we're doing something to improve our own health now. Yes, we're cleaning up someone else's mess. And yes, other states and countries will benefit without paying. But I'd rather be the one to step up and say "I'll do it" than the spineless wimp in the back of the room trying to hide from the problem. I believe that's the forthright thing to do, and for once, instead of just hopping on the bandwagon, we can MAKE the bandwagon that others might hop on.

Kill Your Television

It's only right to return the favor.

I wish I could bring myself to kill mine.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Revolution Will Be Knitted

I love graffiti. There. I said it.

I know. It's a crime. And I know it's a representation of everything anarchistic. But everyone has to have they're little vices. And I just love when artistic skill meets youthful antidisestblishmentarianism in the form of beautiful color on an otherwise-mundane urban facade. Blank walls equal blank minds. Fill the world with art and everyone prospers.

There's a new trend in urban art that's sweeping...errr...swiffering the nation (let's keep this modern). American craft meets Gen-Y defiance in urban knitting. It seems some people have chosen o express themselves by enrobing city trees in colorful knitted creations. Pictures are below, but I have to confess that I stole them from here. Enjoy!

Friday, December 12, 2008

There's No "I" in Delaware

We live in a remarkably small state. It's small enough that one can live on one end and work on the other. The result of this small scale of geography is that, to a greater or lesser extent, the way that one of us uses our land has the potential to impact almost everyone in the state. Therefore, it makes sense to manage--or at least coordinate--the use and development of land at the state level. This is the logic behind the most current of many similar land use planning initiatives introduced by our progressive governors since the 1970s, this time called "Livable Delaware."

Since 2001, Livable Delaware's administrative agency--the Office for State Planning Coordination (OSPC)--has made all local jurisdictions come to the table in Dover to ask for permission on every type of land use decision from building a new school to annexing new land into a city. Built into this process (called the Preliminary Land Use Service, or PLUS) is the opportunity for OSPC staff and other agency officials to offer "suggestions" on how counties and cities should regulate the development of land across the State. One of the most controversial of these "recommendations" has revolved around how to discourage the disappearance of our local farmland by discouraging their development.

In a bold move, Kent County became a pioneer in adopting land use regulations that make development of farmland impossible by allowing only one house for every ten acres of land outside of the State's designated "growth area." In an even bolder move, Delaware farmers are now suing Kent County because they say that this regulation takes away their property rights and prevents them from being able to retire by selling the land to a developer. This lawsuit will probably go nowhere, at least in the long run, for several reasons:

Reason One: Taking away the potential for someone to do something with their land does not mean that that person's property rights have been violated. For example, just because you think you may or might open an arena rock hall someday on your plot of land in downtown Dover does not prevent the City from passing a noise ordinance that effectively prohibits an arena rock hall from being developed on your land. The government cannot read your mind and cannot predict the way the market and technology will evolve in the future. They can only be held responsible for tangible negative consequences of their actions.

Reason Two: The line needs to be drawn somewhere. At some point, the government needs to step in and say that development can happen here but cannot happen over there, and it should (and in this case, did) happen well before the point that development becomes too much too handle (e.g., traffic, noise, pollution, etc.). Buying and selling land is like buying and selling's a very risky business. Ask any homeowner who bought their house four years ago for five times what it's worth now. The government and its regulations are just one of many factors that make land investments risky. Delaware is a mid-atlantic state with a relatively large density of residents, and chances are that your development might just push the area over into the category of "unlivable" because of all the bad things that come from building too many houses in a such a small state. Sorry about your luck, farmer brown. Them's the breaks. You should've had your farm up for sale in the nineties.

Reason Three: New Jersey. That's what unchecked development looks like. It's a mess and it's only getting better now because the government has taxed the crap out of residents and enacted dictatorial development laws in order to stabilize a landscape that was quickly headed for the crapper. We need to learn from New Jersey and find a good middle ground between property rights and preserving public health, safety, and welfare. Having a good regional economy that is at least partly based in agriculture also helps the state by adding diversity to our collective economic "portfolio."

So, my take on this is that farmers will have to swallow their avarice-ridden pride and start raising the next generation of farmers. Either that, or sell the farm at a fair price to someone who wants to be a farmer (what a concept!). The rest of us city-folk will have to start getting more and more comfortable with giving up the idea of limitless possibilities for developing our property and enjoy what we can do with what we have. No, you don't get to decide that that pretty farm field next door will stay that way forever, and no you don't get to raise pigs in your condo in downtown Georgetown. We all need to start thinking in terms of what is enough rather than what is bigger and better and faster.

Of course, I would hope that the process for deciding land development rules will also incorporate a good helping of public input...and not just that little "public hearing" that gets advertised once on page 27 of the local paper. We need to be able to communicate our values and desires and visions more effectively with the people who end up telling us what we can and can't do with our land. That's real democracy, folks, and we need to push our elected leaders to start using it.