Aesthetic Externalities And The Urban Farmer Crackdown

Claire Thompson at Grist:

With the current groundswell of interest in urban homesteading and super-local food production, it’s no surprise people are fired up about their right to garden! But it appears that the widespread, incredulous response to the case of the Michigan gardener who faced jail time for growing veggies last year wasn’t enough to convince local governments to update their urban agriculture policies.

The latest example? Adam Guerrero of Memphis, Tenn., received a citation last week for the “nuisance” caused by the raised vegetable beds and sunflower plants in his yard. This case has an especially ridiculous twist: Guerrero, a high school math teacher, uses the garden to pass his urban farming expertise on to local youth. So far this year, the after-school group has been shown how to make biodiesel, harvest honey, compost, and install solar power.

I, personally, am not even slightly interested in urban homesteading or super-local food production so I hope we can broaden the circle of interest here a bit. The issue is that it would be beneficial along multiple dimensions for urban landowners to have better-defined property rights. Current policy accepts a kind of aesthetic externalities argument about residential housing regulation such that if John doesn’t want to live near a rowhouse and Sally doesn’t want to live near a vegetable garden, they get to gang up and mandate that Mike use his land exclusively for a single-family detached home with a traditional lawn.

We don’t generally accept this kind of rationale for government regulation. Your neighbor’s car is subject to environmental regulations and safety regulations, but you don’t get to tell him you think his car is ugly and you don’t want to live across the street from it. He can wear whatever kind of pants or shoes he likes. That’s not because the aesthetic externalities involved aren’t real, but because the hassle and intrusiveness would create more problems than it solves.