Edmond residents will soon be voting on a proposed increase in sales tax. Revenue generated by the tax will fund the purchase of land south of Hafer Park to prevent the owner from developing it. While purchasing the property may be preferable to perpetually denying a property owner the right to make beneficial use of the property, it is an unusual and costly violation of private property rights.

Deploying the despotic power of government to extort private property is wrong, as is requiring the entire tax-paying public to become an accessory to extortion. The handful of voters that turn out for a special election should not be able to deploy the expropriative power of government to satisfy activists’ illegitimate, overly-intrusive interest in another’s rightful use of privately-owned property.

If NIMBY (not in my backyard) activists are interested in keeping the property undeveloped, they should put their money where their mouth is. Either the developer should be permitted to proceed, or activists should purchase the property with privately-raised funds.

At its core, the controversy is an issue concerning property rights. These include the right to benefit from, enjoy, and use one’s property. If it’s not yours and doesn’t impact your ability to benefit from, enjoy, or use what is yours, you have no right to prevent others from utilizing what is theirs.

 A change.org petition, which decries developers who are “AGAIN attempting to ruin Hafer Park,” has amassed more than 9,000 signatures. Marketed as a way to “Save Your Hafer Park,” the petition is oozing with a reptilian appeal intended to incite an emotional response and trigger a fear-induced, defensive reaction.

Opponents to the development have crafted a narrative utilizing a familiar strawman – the evil, greedy developer is coming to destroy your park, consume your neighborhood, and eliminate the natural habitats of the voiceless. “Do not be confused,” the petition reads, “this is not a one and done, not a we’ll try to preserve as much of the park as possible … it is the beginning of a larger project that is based solely on money.”

The petition comically attempts to invoke one’s parental instincts as well, describing a project that extends “from the swing sets … to the east past the duck pond.” In addition to the threat to safe play spaces, trees will be “wiped out and replaced by asphalt,” habitats will be destroyed, and wildlife “will be forced to flee.”

Having attempted to subvert logic to primal instinct, the petition issues the call to action. It exclaims, “WE MUST … save our parks and natural wildlife … WE MUST speak up for those that cannot … WE MUST protect the little nature we have in this city!!” It’s for the children … and the ducks.

The problem with this opposition rhetoric is that none of it is true. An affirmative vote to increase the sales tax doesn’t save Hafer Park because the proposed development does not threaten Hafer Park. The park will remain untouched by “Mansion Block Luxury Homes.” In fact, the developer has an incentive to preserve such a positive externality. The trees in Hafer Park are going to stay. The pond, the trails, the picnic tables, the grass, the playgrounds, etc. – it all stays. The fact that the park remains whole undermines any attempt to justify the assault on property rights as a threat to some communal property interest.

Beyond the petition’s sensational sales pitch, some opponents have raised a number of more legitimate concerns. For example, some are concerned that the new development would increase traffic volume, overcrowd schools, increase street noise, eliminate a “bio-buffer” resulting in increased temperatures in the park, and overburden stormwater management systems. While these negative externalities are legitimate concerns, they can and should be addressed through the planned unit development and permitting processes. By themselves, they are insufficient to justify the complete denial of private property rights.  

In addition to unjustly infringing on private property rights, denying the property owner the right to employ the land has several unseen costs. The first and most apparent of these costs will be the nearly $4 million necessary to purchase the property. Beyond the costs associated with the acquisition and maintenance of the property, the property will be dead weight.

While the city anticipates adding the land to the city’s park system at some point, there are “no plans or additional funding … for the specific future use of the land.” The lack of a plan or funding should cause Edmond voters to question the propriety of the purchase and the duration of the sales tax increase.

Devising a plan and incorporating the land into the park system will require extra revenue. Facing the need for additional funds and having conditioned the public to pay extra sales tax, renewing the temporary tax will likely be tempting. Edmond residents need not look far for an example of an endless “temporary” tax: the Oklahoma City Metropolitan Area Projects (MAPS).

MAPS’ “temporary” tax hike has been around since 1993. Various reincarnations of MAPS scheme were approved in 2001, 2008, 2009, and 2019. Now under its fourth iteration, the taxpayers continue under the burden of a “temporary” tax. As Milton Friedman once said, “Nothing is so permanent as a temporary government program.”

In addition to the direct costs, there are also opportunity costs. Undeveloped, the city, county, schools, and other taxing entities lose property and sales tax revenues which the mixed-use development might have generated. For example, increased property values, new retail establishments, and, potentially, increased sales at nearby commercial establishments would have generated additional revenue for the city. In essence, the city will have denied itself a financial asset and, instead, incurred a liability.

Finally, restricting residential development artificially inflates the cost of housing by decreasing supply. Policies and governmental actions that reduce housing supply increase its costs. This burden disproportionately falls on low-income families who are priced out of the market, unable to purchase what would likely be their single largest wealth-building asset.    

People in Edmond should get out and cast an informed vote. Know what the project does and does not do, and keep in mind the protection of property rights and financial responsibility. 

Brad Galbraith is Land Use Fellow at 1889 Institute. He can be reached at [email protected].

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of 1889 Institute.