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OUR TURN: Rules for yards should focus on health, safety

The city of Marble Falls is considering sweeping changes to an ordinance that dictates how the outside of your property must look.

Based on an initial discussion held during a City Council meeting July 3, some of the measures make sense, but others seem heavy-handed.

The underlying need for any of these changes, if they are approved, should be health and safety, not personal whim and subjective cultural values — which are often euphemistically labeled “aesthetics.”

Residents would be wise to monitor this process and frequently offer input as city staff develops these new rules.

Already, council members have wisely raised some very valid questions about whether some of these new rules are practical.

We understand city staff wanting to keep properties looking clean and maintaining order so that yards are presentable, but those needs must be balanced with pragmatism and cultural sensitivity.

Here are some suggestion made so far by city staff:

• Allowing no more than three vehicles parked on improved surfaces (concrete or asphalt drive) on a residential property; additional vehicles could be parked curbside or in the backyard.

• Allowing no more than one work vehicle per residence.

• Prohibiting outdoor furniture, playscapes and barbecue grills in the front yard or parking areas for more than 72 hours each use.

Some residents are already saying the city is overstepping its authority when staff dictates whether you can have playscapes, barbecues and lawn furniture in the front yard for only three days.

City officials counter that property values must be taken into account. They say one neighbor’s front-yard excess shouldn’t affect another neighbor’s efforts to sell a home or keep a neighborhood beautiful.

However, city staff must also realize that some cultures and socioeconomic groups don’t really adhere to a “backyard”/front yard aesthetic — for them, the front yard and backyard are all one and the same.

So, how far does city staff want to go in dictating cultural mores?

Also, while it’s true parking cars on the grass in the front yard or leaving hulks on cinderblocks is not an appealing visual image, the provision that calls for no more than three cars parked in a driveway also strikes one as draconian.

Some families — especially if the children are still living at home or have moved back while looking for a job — own more than three cars.

Other families build their driveways large enough to hold several cars. And while the city argues they should use carports and garages, not everyone can afford that.

It’s understandable the city wants to use this provision as a tool to enforce single-family zoning. In some cases, multiple families are squatting in a single home, and it’s not unheard of that work crews move into a single home as a communal dwelling.

Another point worth questioning is the suggested provision to limit only one work vehicle to a driveway. What happens when a father and a son, or a mother and daughter, or all of them, work for the same company and have company vehicles or work trucks?

City staff must be careful not to create the perception they are trying to make it easier for a few to sell their homes while dictating cultural values to everyone else. This is not to say the proposed rules are bad. However, since they have not come up for a vote yet, residents are strongly urged to look into the matter and speak up.

The council members questioning the scope of some of these proposals are right to do so. The driving principle should be securing the health and safety of residents, not fulfilling a subjective idea of what makes a neighborhood beautiful.