An Open Letter to the Towns of Ithaca, Dryden, Danby, and Caroline February 7, 2017
I would like to address the issue of “The Greater Good” so often raised by Town and County officials to justify a trail for public recreation on our farms and near our homes. The phrase has come up often, used by many officials. I will use as a typical example this email exchange between Sandra Kenne, whose family (the Middaughs) has owned a farm on Middaugh Road since before the Civil War and which is diagonally bisected by the proposed trail, and Mr. Ric Dietrich, Town of Danby Supervisor. Sandra voiced concerns, like the rest of us, and received this response:
On Jan 30, 2017, at 4:47 PM, Ric Dietrich <firstname.lastname@example.org> wrote:
I believe most of the questions you asked
Have already been answered to my satisfaction
On Jan 30, 2017, at 7:03 PM, Sandra Kenne <email@example.com> wrote:
Would you please respond to my questions that you feel have been met to your satisfaction.
On Jan 30, 2017, at 7:30 PM, Ric Dietrich <firstname.lastname@example.org> wrote:
All of them
I am pre disposed to endorse this project
Because I started it, and want it to go all the way through to Newark valley.
I have heard all the objections before
And non of them has come true
It is a question of the public good
And since the trail follows the railroad right of way
Which all landowners knew to be a pre existing condition adjacent to their land
At some point their were trains running by your house
A trail seems much less intrusive
Setting aside the arrogance, and the factual points (all the way to Newark Valley, “adjacent” to their land (in Sandra‘s and other cases it is through, not adjacent), and the ridiculous assertion that people wandering through at all times would be less invasive than a scheduled train where people stay on the train and do not set foot on our land), we see Mr. Dietrich’s core argument is that “the public good” is an acceptable justification for causing harm to individuals or a class of people.
When we are young we are all taught that “the ends don’t justify the means” as a basic moral principle, and yet this moral principle is not always considered to apply to government. In fact, it is always the argument used to justify what would otherwise be considered the worst crimes or heinous acts by government – common examples are: dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki ostensibly to prevent even more death and destruction in an invasion, torturing terror suspects ostensibly to prevent some future attack, or banning Muslims from our country to ostensibly protect the non-Muslim majority. Killing innocent people or depriving them of liberty is certainly a greater harm than destroying their privacy and sense of security, but the argument is exactly the same, and it is flawed.
The greater good argument is always flawed because it always reduces the freedom and morality of all people when a large group uses a small group as a means to their ends, no matter how noble the ends (The moral taint on our nation is clear in each of the examples above, no matter what your opinion on whether our country should have done them). The true greater good in any nation is inextricably linked to the degree of freedom and rights given to each and every citizen in equal measure.
The resort to the greater good argument is in fact evidence of a failure of government to plan appropriately and work things out among the parties. I think in hindsight, any thinking, moral person could think of alternate paths of government policy that would have avoided the need to propose a “greater good” solution to the war with Japan or to terrorism. The challenge before you, as our local government, is to find solutions to the conflicting desires of some citizens to recreate on our property and landowners’ right to live in peace and privacy. The only rational measure of whether a plan meets these needs is if the parties affected feel it meets these needs. The “greater good” argument, to throw us under the bus because more people would enjoy what we have, is unnacceptable.
This is nothing new, and in fact organizations like Rails to Trails stress the importance of working with, not against, landowners. The Fingerlakes Trail is an example of a trail created while respecting landowner rights. The reason this particular trail is failing is because of the 9 year history of planners with an attitude like Mr Dietrich’s that have convinced landowners we are dealing with a tyrannical and undemocratic government determined to take away our rights for the benefit of their friends who want to recreate on our nice land. At this point, so much bad faith and damage has been created, the negatives for the community far outweighing any “greater good” to recreate.
Unfortunately, just as we see nationally, “greater good” arguments do a tremenous amount of damage to the civic health of our community. People who once valued local government now resent it. People who were promised use of their neighbors’ land harbor resentment, and landowners are dismayed to see how quickly neighbors will discount their rights when egged-on by the government. The wounds to our townships will take years to heal.
I realize, after being forced to file FOIL requests to find out what is planned for my farm, that much of the push to take from the 70 of us who signed the petition in 2008 and give to the (supposedly) many has come from the Tompkins County Planning Depatment, not the towns, but the negative consequences will be felt most srongly in the towns for years to come. This is the time for our Town Boards to step up to the plate and do better. No war or terrorism is imminent, there is all the time in the world to go back to the plans and find a better solution than “greater good”
Scott Van Gaasbeck