Wednesday, February 12, 2003

Russell Thomas: Local Voices

Dapper's long property fight

There are really only three kinds of laws: those that protect one individual from another, those that protect society from the individual and, the most important, those that protect the individual from society. There are not, and should not be, laws that protect individuals from themselves.

With this in mind, why did Steve Dapper have to wage a 10-year court battle to live in the rooms he added to his home?

In case you haven't been following the situation, Mr. Dapper is an Anderson Township contractor who has been battling with the Hamilton County Building Department over his home.

The county alleges he built his addition, in 1993, with substandard materials and workmanship, and without a permit. I'm tempted to think that if the addition has stood this long, it couldn't have been too substandard. But, I digress.

The point is, it was his house, his family, his design and his craftsmanship. What right did the county have to object?

It was not protecting the individual from society, society from the individual or one individual from another. Let the man and his family alone.

Document that the house was built without inspection or permit. Slap a lien on the title that prevents the building's sale without county approval. List the property with the Multiple Listing Service as impossible to sell. Tack a 4-x-8 foot sign to the side of the house advertising that the county believes the place to be unsafe if you want. Just don't tear it down.

But the county must satisfy its duty to protect society from the individual. So when do they have a right to step in? When he tries to inflict this house on someone else.

But, even then, it should be the right of the informed buyer to decide. If I wish to buy a substandard house, that's my prerogative. Well, maybe my mortgage or insurance company will have something to say. But if I don't like what they tell me, I can shop my business around. Or pay cash, and avoid any other interference.

I'm not saying the county doesn't have the authority to require building permits, just that they don't have the right to interfere with what the individual wants to do to his own property.

If Mr. Dapper wishes to add on to his home, and doesn't have a permit or building inspections done, so be it. It's his homestead.

If he wishes to add on to my home, that's where the county gains a voice. Then the law becomes the protector of the individual, from the individual, just as it is suppose to.

Tearing down a man's home, at his expense, is not something the founding fathers envisioned. I'm certain that neither Monticello nor Mount Vernon ever had building permits. But there they stand, 250 years later. I'm just as sure that Mr. Dapper's existing home was built without benefit of government intervention 156 years ago. Yet, there it stands also.

Our system of government was designed to be the servant of the people, not their master. Do the actions of the Hamilton County Building Department look like those of a servant?

Not to me. If I had to make a comparison, I'd say they more closely resemble the actions of, say, a George III.

A review of the court papers, which are online in Hamilton County, is enlightening. Mr. Dapper acted as his own counsel. Unwise in some respects, but not illegal. But, it was the lack of counsel that may have doomed his case.

Each court has its own set of rules, which govern the minutia of the operation of the court. Small rules in some respects, but important. To quote a line from The Music Man, "Ya gotta know the territory."

Unfortunately for the Dappers, their counsel didn't know the territory.

Instead of finding against them on the merits of the case, it was the failure to timely file an appeal that doomed the Dappers' addition.

Is that your idea of a servant of the people?

Russell Thomas, of Melbourne, is a government employee who enjoys freelance writing.

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