Suburbia: Beady-Eyed Deck Checkers


This is a tale about a backyard deck and a handful of unelected social mechanics in Alexandria, Virginia. The deck is mine. The social mechanics—sitting on a Board of Architectural Review—were appointed by city council. The BAR wants me to tear down my deck.

Not because it's plastered with racial epithets or obscenities. It isn't. And it's constructed of high-quality, pressure-treated timber. It sits only inches off the ground, is 12 feet by 12 feet, has a 4-foot side railing, is unpainted, and is about as obvious as a shy person in a crowd. And it isn't that the deck is unsafe. An inspector from the engineering department of the City of Alexandria stamped it "sound."

No, the social mechanics want me to tear down my deck because I didn't give them the opportunity to determine whether it conforms to aesthetic standards. Conforms? Is its nose too large? Is its skin black or olive? Does it speak with an accent? Does it worship a "different" god in a "different" way on a "different" day?

The deck is in my back yard and mostly hidden from view. It's there for my family's relaxation. But, by gosh, if you peer through some holes in my fence you can see it! That's precisely what I was told by a job-market desperado calling himself a full-time staff member of the BAR. He said that unless I built a new fence, higher and opaque, to hide the deck, then it would have to go. What the BAR wants in Alexandria are aesthetically conforming decks—and, most likely, residents with white skin, blue eyes, and membership in a Protestant church.

Oh. The job-market desperado told me one other thing. Before I could build the fence to thoroughly hide the deck, he and the BAR would have to approve the fence plans—scale drawings, dimensions, samples of material, 10 copies of everything plus a multipart form to the board, written notification to each of my neighbors of my intent, and my appearance at a public hearing. Of course, I could forget the fence if I wished to submit my deck aesthetics to the same process.

And what if I choose to ignore this patently absurd nonsense? "The city" will come out, tear down the deck under its police power, and bill me. If I resist, the police will consider it a barricade situation and act accordingly. So much for being secure in your own home in Alexandria, Virginia. So much for the phrases in our Constitution's preamble: "Establish justice…insure domestic tranquility,…secure the blessings of liberty. "

How can it be that this colonial city—where George Washington and other sons of liberty slept and ate—is so intolerant? Why are representatives of the Board of Architectural Review snooping around private back yards?

Years ago, Alexandria city officials—at the behest of merchants, developers, and real estate agents, all anxious to reproduce "colonial charm" so as to attract tourists and increase property values—created a historical district in Alexandria. Indeed, some of the homes in the district do date to colonial times. As with designer clothing, they carry plaques attesting to pedigree—and outrageous prices. Any exterior activity, from the painting of window trim to the repair of exterior steps, must be approved by the BAR out of fear that the product might be clipped, sweated, or melted as with gold coins. Never mind that the owners of private property have the greatest incentive to protect value. The colonial architecture of Alexandria, Virginia, is just too important to be trusted to its tax-paying private plebes.

Well, George Washington didn't sleep in my house. Until Allied troops—in defense of liberty—hit the shores of Normandy, a brickyard stood on the land. Indeed, the only thing historic about my neighborhood is my neighbor, Charlie Sampson, a delightful chap who long ago retired as city fire chief.

Nonetheless, in the dead of night—a convenient time to raise taxes and deal with other contentious issues—the Alexandria city fathers extended the historic area to include my not-so-old neighborhood. They even included Interstate 95, which passes nearby. Now those bureaucrats at the Federal Highway Administration up the road in Washington may never pay heed to the BAR when it comes time to repave 1-95 through Alexandria. But my situation is more delicate.

I don't have unlimited resources called taxing power. I can't fight City Hall. The cost of an attorney to pursue this issue is prohibitive. So there I sit—temporarily—on my backyard deck, the focus of an unelected vigilante group that wishes to remake more and more of Alexandria in its own image.

And all the while I see a city bureaucrat's beady eyes struggling to spy through a hole in my fence and pass judgment on the aesthetic conformity of my backyard deck.

Mama, load the shotgun.

Frank Wilner is a transportation economist who often suffers apoplexy at the sight of pompous bureaucrats.