Why can’t people do whatever they want with their own property? This is America, after all. Yes. But individual volition, as essential as that is, depends on a delicate relationship between the desires of the one and the comfort of all. It’s an ongoing debate, and I hear snippets of it all the time, because I’ve been involved for some years in historic preservation in Buffalo. We have nineteenth century structures that are owned by absentee landlords who don’t understand why they need to patch a roof or why they can’t cover everything up with vinyl siding. But there are ordinances—albeit not always that well enforced—that stop these people from doing (or not doing) whatever they want to their buildings. They resent it. They truly believe that they should be allowed to let their properties fall apart, regardless of the impact that has on the community.
Within the more ambiguous arena of the domestic landscape, ordinances are not so clear (outside of neighborhoods bound by clear HOA rules). And just like historic preservation—though both have been understood to have value since the early initiatives of the sixties and seventies (and before)—preservation of the natural environment and its associated resources is still something that people debate.
I was thinking of all this when I saw a Facebook post by a fellow garden writer, who posted an image of a Santa Barbara estate surrounded by acres of well-watered, carefully tended lawn. We haven’t seen lawn here in Buffalo since November, but California is unblessed by the copious precipitation we’ve been having. In fact, the state is experiencing one of its most severe droughts ever—for a fourth consecutive year. Residents have been asked to reduce their water use by 20%, and there are some minor restrictions on outdoor water use in place, with heavier restrictions under consideration. Fines are minimal. That’s why a wealthy resident could ignore the laws and just pay the fine—we have that happen with housing violators as well.
In comments on the Facebook post, some commenters, even though they deplored the waste of water, still insisted on the rights of the property owner to waste water however he or she chose. I don’t understand this insistence on the individual right to do anything, no matter how it may harm the larger community. It’s a mindset that’s active in other arenas than preservation and water conservation, and it gets scarier every year.