by Albert Paschall,
Senior Commentator, Lincoln Institute
Where I live is sort of a condominium/townhouse arrangement. While it isn't tightly governed like a lot of shared communities it does have its rules. For instance I can install any kind of front door I want as long at it is wood, has six panels and is forest green. I've often wondered what the consequences of some bold move like a red, glass topped door would be. Some wild soccer moms kicking it down? The neighborhood bowling league organizing a painting party?
But being relatively new to the neighborhood I don't want to provoke anyone and besides that in a condo the commitments to green doors, dark stained decks and white curtains are made voluntarily. But with a new ordinance being considered all over the state those kinds of subjective decisions may be dictated by your township or borough.
An obscure agency in Virginia, The International Code Council, has a lot to say about how we live. This is the agency that develops standardized codes for commercial properties in the interest of public safety. In the wake of the 9/11 tragedy they've been busy modernizing standards for high rise buildings. ICC also offers residential code standards that local governments can adopt. The International Property Maintenance Code is one of these though it should be called the Incoherent Provocative Mischief Code.
Nearly two years ago the US Supreme Court's disastrous Kelo v. New London decision gave local governments enormous powers of condemnation. In the Kelo case a whole neighborhood was destroyed to build a hotel and marina. In the wake of it most states have attempted to take the potential threat of political mischief out of the practice of condemnation by not allowing state money to be used as part of the process. Anything from a state sponsored stop sign to dredging a harbor for a marina can stop the condemnation process. The new tool for local governments to overcome the barriers to condemnation is the International Property Maintenance Code.
The IPMC as it is known is under consideration by townships and boroughs all over the state. While most local governments have ordinances related to how high grass can grow and whether or not you can store a junked car in your yard, the IPMC takes municipal power to a whole new level. Under most of the ordinances a committee would be formed to decide whether or not your property was blighted. Peeling paint on the windowsill? They can fine you. Cracked macadam in the driveway? The government can fix it– and send you the bill.
However the real risk of an IPMC is political vindictiveness. As one western Chester County Township Supervisor said: "You don't use a sledgehammer to kill an ant." A committee of do-gooders judging the subjective value of maintenance to your home can be a real disadvantage if you fall on hard times or want to sell your place. Like other local government initiatives such as Business Improvement Districts and Historical Architectural Review Boards the path to these ordinances is paved with the best of intentions. And like the path to the nether regions, the concept of IPMC gets real hot, very quickly. In a Business Improvement District in Pennsylvania property owners are subject to additional taxes and even condemnation. Stories abound about property owners from one end of this state to the other who have been tortured for years by various forms of rogue historic review boards.
Undoubtedly our townships and boroughs need some authority that can protect neighboring property values. The junked cars, refrigerators and weeds that can allow one home to make a whole neighborhood an eyesore have to be corrected. IPMC's though leave too much room for mischief. Someday if they are enacted all over the state some government committee might be dictating the color of your front door.
The Lincoln Institute of Public Opinion Research, Inc.