One of the hilarious ironies attendant on the mosque debate is the sudden discovery by the liberal elites of the vital importance of property rights — how Imam Feisal Rauf and his people have purchased a site on which they should be able to build “as of right,” and how those who are objecting to the mosque’s construction are committing an offense not only against the free exercise of religion but against commonly accepted principles involving real estate.
For the past 40 years, especially in New York City, property rights have taken a back seat in almost all discussions of the proper use of real estate. Following the lamentable razing of the great old Penn Station, the general proposition has been that any major project should have a distinctly positive public use. Landmark commissions, zoning boards and the like have imposed all sorts of restrictions and demands on property owners that interfere with their right to build as they would wish. Laws have been written after the fact (especially when Broadway theaters were jeopardized by real-estate development in the early 1980s) to restrict the right of property owners to do as they would wish with the land and buildings they own.
Thus, the outrage which greeted the suggestion that zoning boards and the like should and could be used to block the Cordoba Intitiative is bitterly comic. Such boards have been used for decades to block projects for reasons involving the “sensitivities” of a neighborhood, like the time Woody Allen and others fought the construction of a building at the corner of 91st and Madison on the grounds that it would harm the historic nature of the area — when in fact he and his neighbors were concerned about a shadow the building might cast on their communal backyard. Walter Cronkite went on a tear against a tall building being built by Donald Trump on the East Side near the UN because it was going to block his view.
Nor is the right of religious institutions or religious people absolute. You can’t put a religious school anywhere; Samuel Freedman’s book Jew vs. Jew details several cases in which more secular Jews have fought the installation of more religious Jewish institutions in their communities using zoning laws.
So by all means, let us pay tribute to the primacy of property rights. Or are they only to be invoked when convenient?