Playing Chicken with Property Rights & Economic Freedom

By. Neil Williamson, President

2019 Summer Economics Series: This summer The Free Enterprise Forum will examine a number of economic theories that impact business development, housing affordability, transportation, and quality of life in Central Virginia.  In all cases these issues relate to local government policy not any one particular project.

In public hearings across the country, citizens and no growth advocates often call out the concept of need, i.e. dancing chicken“Do we really need another chicken place?”  This ‘need’ argument also extends into residential rezonings as well but today we will focus on commercial.

I remember vividly this discussion coming up in Charlottesville when the Zaxby’s on Emmet Street was first proposed.  Situated about a half mile south from both KFC (formerly known as Kentucky Fried Chicken) and Raising Cane’s, citizens felt this was too much chicken crossing both sides of US29.  Rejecting the illegal “excessive poultry” argument , Zaxby’s eventually received the required approval.

Under the auspices of public safety and necessity, the primary purpose of so called “Euclidian” zoning is to put uses together that are compatible.  Under that authority, the government has no role in determining what specific business shall locate on any given property.  Property owners have the right to legally develop the property how ever they wish under the existing zoning.  If it is zoned commercial all the commercial options are available to them (including chicken place)

If we accept that property rights premise, we must also accept the corollary the property owner’s right to not develop their property.

The property owner has a responsibility to pay the taxes on the property and make certain it is secure.  We are now seeing this play out with both the former “Landmark” hotel as well as many empty retail spaces throughout Albemarle County.  While citizens and lawmakers eye these properties for their own desired redevelopment vision, they do not have the ability to force the landowner to do anything beyond the public safety of the space.

Writing about property rights, Andrew Morris of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) outlines the economic construct for stewardship:

By making it possible for a property owner to gain from good stewardship, private property creates an incentive to invest in maintaining and improving resources. Just as important, if someone is not engaged in good stewardship, whether due to ignorance, indolence, or idiocy, private property rights make it possible for someone who is able to engage in good stewardship to offer a premium over the value of the property to the current owner. By buying the property and improving its management, the new owner can generate enough income to pay the higher price. (Of course, not every owner will sell when offered more money than he is getting from his property, but many will.)

It is the owner (and eventually the market) that decides if we ‘need’ yet another chicken place.  The owner takes the risk, not the government.

  • If the chicken place offers better food, better variety, better service or more convenience than the other places, it will gain market share from those places.
  • Alternatively, if this new chicken place offers innovative cuisine that expands the amount of chicken diners it may gain market share from other dining establishments.
  • If the chicken new place fails to provide a needed service or product, it will fail.  This is our free market at work.

We live in a competitive marketplace, if property owners see the best use of their land to be to allow it to lay fallow, that is their right.  If government, or a private entity, wishes to place time demands on commercial development they have the option to buy it.  Absent a purchase, government should focus on the health, safety and welfare of the citizenry and not the timing of development.

Therefore, YES we ‘need’ another chicken place, if that’s what the property owner wishes to do with their property.  The market, not the government, will decide whether or not to support this specific use.

Respectfully Submitted,

Neil Williamson, President

Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a privately funded public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna, Louisa and  Nelson County.

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