I wonder what anyone out there thinks of this issue, especially from a libertarian-type property rights perspective:
I live out in the country—granted, the countryside of New Jersey, but still, in a semi-rural area. The town I live in, Readington, is quite large (48 sq miles), and contains a fair bit of open space, along with a bunch of large-scale property holdings.
One of the owners of one of these larger plots owns a plot large enough to accommodate a small jetport—which is what he wants to build on it. The plot in question already has a small airport on it, intended for private propeller-driven planes, but the owner wants to upgrade the existing airport to the equivalent of a regional jetport for some of the smaller commercial airlines.
Predictably, area residents have objected to his project on grounds of traffic and noise: a jetport will greatly increase the amount of traffic in the area, and shatter the peace and quiet to which residents have become accustomed (aka, “our rural way of life”). Plus (they continue) a jetport is just plain “inappropriate in a residential area,” and “unnecessary,” given the (relative) proximity of other regional airports to central Jersey.
We’re relatively new to Readington, but apparently, the dispute between property owner and area residents has gone on for decades. As a local resident myself, I have a certain sympathy for the objections to the airport upgrade. The one big attraction of moving to the country, after all, was peace and quiet: the New York-New Jersey metro area is loud and obnoxious in ways that bucolic Hunterdon County is not, and I have to say, I like it that way.
I mean, frankly, I’ve done my time living next to airports. I just spent the last eleven years living under the flight path to
Newark Airport (sorry, I mean Newark Liberty International Airport). It got old after awhile. As a grad student, I spent a few years living next to Michiana Regional Airport (sorry, I mean South Bend International Airport). That, too, was a pretty unpleasant affair: the noise of jets landing and taking off at all hours made my apartment almost unusable. (The upside was that I could walk to the airport.) And you’ve already heard me yammer on and on about my noisy, dogshit-hoarding neighbors back in Bloomfield. I figured it was time for a change. I mean, Cicero and Jefferson had country estates. Why not me?
Noise is an intrusive physical phenomenon–a pollutant–so if other pollutants can be regarded as rights-violative boundary-crossings (as apparently they can), so, goddammit, can impositions of unwanted noise. If impositions of unwanted noise are rights violations, well then, they can be stopped, and since jets are really loud impositions of unwanted noise, it somehow ought to follow that they can really be stopped. The noise-as-property-rights-violation thesis seems to imply that area residents are right to veto the building of the airport on grounds of noise, even if they end up being wrong about everything else. Which all seems to point in the direction of shutting down the airport.
But could it really be that easy? No, it could not. There’s something more than a little problematic about the idea that rural folk are somehow entitled to perpetual peace and quiet simply because they happen to live in the country, and have the legal power to keep development at bay in a way that would be laughed off the stage in a real town or city. (For an explicit book-length defense of this entitlement, you can’t beat this little book, which spells things out with offensive, aristocratic clarity.) Is peace and quiet a path-dependent phenomenon, so that you’re entitled to it only if you already have it, and are entitled to more, the more you have? I mean, at first glance, being in possession of the relevant thing, I’m ready to sign on. But at second glance, the whole thing looks a lot like…the essence of aristocratic privilege.
The larger point involved here is that it’s not clear how to think about property rights in or entitlements to peace and quiet, or how to think about noise as a rights violation, assuming it is one. On the one hand, noise is an unavoidable feature of human life, as are unwanted impositions of noise. Life, progress, and fun all require noise, and there’s no feasible way to internalize the whole of the externality involved. So no one has a right to total and perpetual silence, not even me.
But noise impositions have a limit, too. I can’t just plug my guitar into a Marshall stack at 4 am some fine Friday morning, open the windows, and play pentatonic scales at top volume for the next few hours. And this is apart from how badly I play them. Forget electric guitars: you can’t even run a lawn mower or leaf blower at that hour. Famously, in Islamic countries, the muezzin sounds the melodious (well, some think it melodious) call to prayer, loudly, five times a day, starting at dawn. You can’t feasibly call it “noise pollution” when you’re living in such a country. But you sure AF can when you aren’t.* Even the spectrum between total silence and outright cacophony presents a host of problems, as anyone who has lived in a downstairs apartment can attest.
Yes, I know: lawyers have clever fixes for all these problems, from zoning to contract remedies. And then there’s the common law and Coase’s Theorem and what not. But there’s a kind of ad hoc quality to all of this legal mumbo jumbo. In the absence of a principled account–a real Normative Theory of Noise with Application to Rights Theory–the remedy seems to be to grab at the levers of power and get what you can, however you can. I’m inclined to think that we can do better, but I’ve never seen the kind of principled account we truly need (and deserve).** Not that I’m about to write one.
Anyway, Readington Township, having exhausted its legal remedies to stop the airport outright, has now approved a plan to acquire large swatches of land around the airport by eminent domain, marking these would-be acquisitions permanently as “Open Space”–the strategy being to box in the would-be airport in ways that make it harder to develop as a viable commercial property (throwing some dubious environmental rationalizations into the mix). The more boxed-in the airport is, the harder to access; the harder to access, the less attractive as a commercial property. The MO, I assume, is to discourage the owner’s attempts at developing the property so as to induce him to give up on it: death by a thousand legal cuts.
Local residents seem pretty unanimously to think that Readington is infantilizing the property owner with the legal equivalent of cooing noises, but as far as I’m concerned, Readington’s strategy seems just as mercenary and objectionable as the most objectionable features of the airport proposal itself: the use of eminent domain violates property rights even more obviously than the noise of the jets would, and the boxing-in strategy, while not quite a rights violation (I suppose), seems problematic in its own way.
Even if we set aside the use of eminent domain, it’s not clear as a matter of general principle that one property owner should deliberately be allowed to box another one in so as to make the one owner’s plans (commercial or otherwise) unviable. It makes things worse that the one “property owner” doing it is a local government that depends for its revenue on the property taxes of individual residents, including taxes paid by the airport guy himself. This seems to imply that Readington could in principle box anyone in whenever there was sufficient political pressure to do so, as could any other town, or, come to that, any other relevantly similar corporate entity. Do New Jersey municipal governments learn their tricks from the Israeli occupation, or is it the other way around? I’m not sure, but I’m not sure it matters.
While I’m not sure who to root for or against, I don’t think neutrality is feasible, either: either a jetport will be constructed, dumping noise pollution directly into my home; or Readington will do its best to box the jetport in, scuttling the project with my tax dollars, in my name. There doesn’t seem to be a third alternative, and I have a stake in both of the two live ones.
*Before you put a fatwa on me, let me just clarify: I like the adhan. I do. I just think there’s something problematic about commandeering public space five times a day in God’s name. During Ramadan, the morning call to prayer can go on for hours, starting at 2 am and ending around 5 am. I mean, come on. If this is what God wanted, would he have invented sleep?
**But as one of my ex-wives used to say: “Did you look?” No, alas, I hadn’t. A quick look reveals Yet More Fucking Things I Haven’t Read, as for instance, Robert C. Chanaud’s Noise Ordinances: Tools for Enactment, Modification, and Enforcement of a Community Noise Ordinance, in all of its 277 page glory. Then there’s Fred Roberts’s sadly unheralded Measurement Theory, with Applications to Decision Making, Utility, and the Social Sciences (Addison Wesley, 1979), doubtless a masterwork of accessibility, with its “applications of measurement theory to social problems and decision-making problems involving air and noise pollution,” inter alia. And though I haven’t quite read it yet, there is, more recently, Marrieke Borren’s “Human Rights Activism and the Politics of Smell and Noise,” Netherlands Journal of Legal Philosophy, vol. 46:1 (2017), pp. 4-12, which, despite its enticing title, fixates on the noise and smell pollution produced by migrants and refugees–rather than my adversaries, jet planes and cars.
At the end of the day, I guess, there’s always repose to be had in this.