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Nick Varriano, Fargo, Published April 19 2014

Letter: Fargo neighborhood suffers the tyranny of the majority

In his 1835 book, “Democracy in America,” Alexis de Tocqueville warns that the greatest threat the United States faces is the tyranny of the majority. When a majority places its interests above those of an individual or minority, the active oppression compares favorably to that of a tyrant or despot.

This tyrannical majority recently reared its ugly head in a Fargo neighborhood, using the heavy hand of government to promote its own selfish interests.

A gravel alley – a relic of early 20th-century city planning – provides an unlikely battleground to illustrate the tyranny of majority. Originally, alleys provided access for a home’s cruder services, such as deliveries and garbage collection, allowing the front of the home to remain unblemished. As materialism crept into American culture, people amassed more toys and cars, necessitating the need for additional storage space. Homeowners sacrificed backyards in order to build two-, three- and even four-car garages. As concrete replaced grass, melting snow and rain flowed into the alley, creating filthy conditions.

Tired of driving their cars down a muddy or dusty alley, a benevolent group of homeowners calling themselves the Ladies Neighborhood Improvement Association canvassed the neighborhood, asking people to sign a petition to have the city pave the alley. Unfortunately, this group’s benevolence did not extend to any sense of fairness as to how the $200,000 construction project would be paid. By employing a regulation in the North Dakota Century Code allowing a simple majority of homeowners to establish a special assessment district, 53 percent of homeowners with alley access to their garages imposed $6,300-$9,500 construction bills on each of the 47 percent of homeowners whose garages face the street and so never use the alley.

Sadly, the petitioners celebrate their success, believing their crusade to be righteous because they had the law on their side, conveniently forgetful of the morality of their actions. Maybe the obstinate farmer in Robert Frost’s poem was right, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

Government arbitrarily uses its power to pick winners and losers. The city wins because of reduced alley maintenance and profits from the bond interest. Homeowners who use the alley to access their garages win by spreading the construction costs to neighbors. The losers in this fiasco are the homeowners forced to pay for a project that provides them no value.

Hopefully, this debacle serves as a cautionary tale of the tyrannical reach of the majority.