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OUR OPINION: Can’t fault proposal’s mild infringements

This story of North Dakota’s wide-open prairie has an origin that’s the opposite of wide-open: In the heart of Manhattan, in a skyscraper that rises straight up from the sidewalk with no setback at all.

The 38-story Equitable Building was a monumental achievement upon its completion in 1915. But the neighbors were angry, not impressed: The new structure cast a huge shadow that threw the buildings nearby into permanent shade.

You see, the Equitable Building’s owners — in due exercise of their property rights — had chosen to maximize the building’s floor space by using every available square inch. So, their building “has no setback from the street beyond the depth of the sidewalk, rising vertically for all its floors,” as Wikipedia describes.

“Many New Yorkers reasoned that further construction of buildings like it would turn Manhattan into an unpleasant and dark maze of streets.

“In response, the city adopted the 1916 Zoning Resolution, which limited the height and required setbacks for new buildings to allow the penetration of sunlight to street level.”

With that action, zoning was born. Governments have restricted property owners’ development rights ever since.

And when a landowner objected to the zoning ordinances of Euclid, Ohio, in 1926, the U.S. Supreme Court reviewed the case and found zoning to be constitutional.

The point here is not that North Dakota should zone the “extraordinary places” being considered by the Industrial Commission (and written about by two commission members in nearby columns).

After all, nothing that the commission is considering would ban development in any way.

Instead, the point simply is to remind the commissioners that private-property rights are not absolute.

That means the commissioners needn’t have qualms about the extraordinary-places proposal, because its restrictions are both perfectly legal and exceedingly mild.

With that in mind, Commissioner Doug Goehring is being too deferential when he declares, “public comment cannot be permitted on private lands.” Property rights are so sacrosanct that interested parties can’t even be allowed to comment?

To repeat, property rights are not absolute. They’re subject to reasonable restrictions in all 50 states.

They’re certainly strong enough to withstand a brief comment period, especially when scenic, wildlife or other values that matter to a whole population are at stake.

Under the extraordinary-places proposal, North Dakotans get “a” word in plans for development, while the property owners themselves retain “the last” word. It’s a sensible balance that takes the interests of all parties — including the public — into account.

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