Magstadt: Attention all newcomers: Welcome to the Animal Farm!

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The front-page headline in the Plaindealer (08/15/2013) proclaimed, “Visual impact hearing reveals rift.” The article reported a meeting at which the Board of County Commissioners heard public comments on proposed changes to Section 9 of the county land use code, the so-called Visual Impact Regulations or VIR.
These changes would add roads to the existing list and tighten regulations affecting structures and land uses in the future. There are some burning (pardon the pun) questions reasonable people can disagree over. If your old nonconforming house burns down why can’t you rebuild it on the old foundation? What if the fire destroys a little over half the house?
The newspaper account, however, reveals the need for a different kind of VIR – call it a Verbal Impact Review. I’m talking about a code of civil public discourse – like being polite even to people who don’t share your…uh…opinions (I almost said your prejudices, but that would be impolite—see what I mean?). It’s the sort of thing that has disappeared from national politics. Who among us out here in the Real America wouldn’t welcome the return of civility to Washington, D.C.?
In general, this Ouray County property owner is in favor of a sensible land use policy that protects the environment and preserves the natural beauty of this special place without dictating in minute detail what private property owners can or cannot do or unduly burdening farmers, ranchers, entrepreneurs or investors seeking to develop, expand or improve a business. Regulations, like governments, are a necessary evil, but only within limits defined by a community of free people committed to reason and fairness.
If you’re thinking that position leaves a lot of wiggle room in both directions, you’re right. My views on this politically and emotionally charged issue of great local interest and far-reaching importance to the future, direction and character of our county, are no more or less important than any other local property owner’s.
Are some opinions worth more than others? Perhaps. But the question begs a bigger one: How can we make a rationale choice? Whose opinion deserves respect and whose doesn’t? Tradition and time-honored ways of thinking have value, but so do new ideas and fresh perspectives. Challenging the authority of a self-appointed in-group is the quintessential American story.
The article mentioned at the start reported, “Some speakers criticized the proposal as coming from ‘newcomers’ and ‘elitists’ who want to change the county and turn it into Telluride.” One speaker called proponents “gate closers” who move here and want to shut locals out.
Since when did George Orwell’s Animal Farm become a template for public meetings in Colorado? Orwell’s allegory is an incisive commentary on life in a dystopia, a place where liberty and justice are a cruel fiction—unless you’re lucky enough to be a pig. The underlying principle of politics in Animal Farm is that all animals are equal—but pigs are more equal than others.
Is it fair to dismiss the views of everybody on one side in a public debate with a derogatory label? In what respects are new property owners inferior? Do they, for example, not pay taxes at the same rate? Is the money they spend for goods and services here less important to the local economy? Would the real estate market be stronger without them? Did gates and fences not exist in these parts before the “elitists” came to town? (Ask a Ute about that, if you can find one.)
If you don’t have an argument and you can’t answer people who do, call them a hateful name—like the bully on the school playground did when you were nine years old. Name-calling is not only juvenile, but it’s inflammatory. Public anger and fighting words are hardly conducive to advancing the public interest or the general good. That’s incompatible with democracy or a civil society, full stop.
Don’t take my word for it: ask any Egyptian.
How long do you have to live here to belong? In one sense, if you live anywhere in the Four Corners region of the southwestern United States and you are not, say, Ute, Hopi, Navaho, Apache, Zuni or Pueblo, you are a newcomer. You claim ownership of land they called home long before you or any of your people arrived on the scene.
They didn’t fence it off and post “No Trespassing” signs on it.
We did. So you see, we have more in common with each other than you might think…

Tom Magstadt writes and cooks in the log cabin of his dreams.  He lives on a mountain in Ouray County and frequents Colorado Boy almost enough to qualify as a regular Visit Tom’s blog at http://open.salon.com/blog/dakotaki.