Should Urban People be concerned about Property Rights? By Shirley Dolan

There were events last week in two different City’s in Ontario that demonstrate how urban property rights are being eroded – one in Ottawa and one in Ajax. There were probably more but these two made the news.

Last week in Ottawa, a community became outraged when a senior citizen was given a deadline that would force him to remove graffiti from his backyard fence in the middle of winter. This is the third time John Gutterman, 74, has been targeted by vandals and it probably won’t be the last. The message from bylaw is that if he doesn’t have the graffiti removed by March 1st, the City could do the work and demand payment within 30 days or have the charge added to his tax bill. Where are this citizen’s property rights?
Ottawa is experiencing a cold winter this year and it seems unreasonable to ask this gentleman to go out into his back yard and paint over the offending spray-painting. The fence is not facing a residential street – it faces the transit way, but apparently some people passing by on public transit are offended by the spray paint on Mr. Gutterman’s fence and have reported it to Bylaw. In this case, his councillor is working to help and the community is also supportive.

But what about the bylaw itself which says that property owners are responsible for removing the graffiti within the City’s time frame, and if they don’t, the City may hire a contractor to remove it at the homeowners expense?

This, like other bylaws, operates to a certain extent on the snitch line. If a complaint is made, the City must respond and issue an order for the graffiti to be removed and then they appear to get caught in their own rules and common sense goes by the wayside, as has happened in this case. We expect that Mr. Gutterman will correct the problem, as he has in the past, by painting over the graffiti. How well will that work in -25 degree weather?

I am told that the bylaw has been successful in reducing the instances of spray paint vandalism in some areas. This is a good thing, especially in commercial areas where businesses are concerned about a clean, unmarked storefront. But surely in residential neighbourhoods, there can be some flexibility in applying the law. Also, one wonders if the same result could not have been achieved with an educational program instead of a bylaw.

But back to the complaints. Graffiti vandalism is a criminal offense and it should be reported to the police. We need to put more emphasis on protecting the homeowner from this type of crime rather than victimizing him a second time.

See City pushes homeowner to remove graffiti in mid-winter .
The other example of urban property rights abuse happened in Ajax A neighbor complained about a family who had constructed a front yard rink. Apparently, it’s OK to have a rink in the back yard but not in the front yard. This wasn’t possible for this family – the backyard slopes and there is a swimming pool there. Bylaw says the problem is the boards around the rink. The family was given two weeks to remove the boards or face a $25,000 fine. It appears there have been several instances of anonymous calls to bylaw targeting a number of people in this neighbourhood. Cities have to get out of the business of settling neighbour-on-neighbour complaints through bylaws. Once the complaint is made, bylaw is obliged to follow through with the letter of the law and it seems that common sense is not permitted.