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Government Mandates are Worse than Unsightly Buildings

One of the important changes that the Laramie County Commission made to the 2014 PlanCheyenne Update before adopting it on Tuesday, March 11, was to strike the section entitled Design Principles for New Development. Unfortunately, that section remains in the version of PlanCheyenne adopted the previous evening by the Cheyenne City Council. The problem? That section includes the most aggressive government power-grab in the Cheyenne Unified Development Code (“UDC”).

The design principles that the County Commission removed are not necessarily bad. In fact, I believe that they were technically and functionally sound based on my own education in the planning field. They certainly reflect my personal taste in architectural design and aesthetics. I would even use the design principles as a guideline for my buildings if I were in the development business and property developers must remain free to do so. The fundamental problem with the design principles in PlanCheyenne is that they are government-driven.

In 1996, the Wyoming Supreme Court stated, “Exclusive possession is a fundamental element of property ownership” and “a true owner of land exercises full dominion and control over it.” (Sammons v. American Automobile Association.) Because a true owner of land exercises full dominion and control over it and possesses the right to expel trespassers, individual property owners must be allowed to exclude others who interfere with the owner’s right to alter the aesthetic appearance of that property. This means that only a property owner and the design professionals the owner invites onto the land should decide what a building on the property looks like—so long as neighbors’ property rights and the safety of other community members are not harmed as a result. Many of the design principles that the Laramie County Commission removed from PlanCheyenne were focused on aesthetics, and had nothing to do with nuisance or safety concerns, strengthening the property rights of county landowners.

To be sure, some of the deleted design principles were designed to protect the health and safety of people who were trying get from place to place. For example, the design principles for Large Tenant Commercial development included a focus on how parking lots and buildings were oriented to ensure people could safely get into a store from either the sidewalk or from the parking lot after they were no longer in a car. Governments can reasonably try to protect lives and property. However, the design principles also tried to ensure that the buildings a person encountered along the way were nice to look at. As a result, the design elements that the County Commission removed from PlanCheyenne were regulatory overreach, crossing the line from protecting health, safety, and welfare to meddling in an owner’s full dominion and control over the aesthetic design of private buildings.

Eliminating the design standards from PlanCheyenne was an important step toward protecting private property rights, especially the right of exclusive possession, even if I have to see more buildings around town that I think are unsightly as a result.

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