First World Problems

From the Government vs. Childhood chronicles, “[a] zoning board in Fairfax County, Va., is standing firm in its decision to order a war veteran to destroy a tree house he built for his two young sons.”

He said he contacted Fairfax County and was given assurances that he didn’t need any special permits to build the $1,400 tree house.

But it turns out – that wasn’t exactly accurate.

It turns out Grapin didn’t need a permit – he needed a zoning variance. That’s because his house is on a corner lot. And in the eyes of Fairfax County – Grapin has two front yards.

. . . .

In the meantime, Grapin has had to pay nearly $1,800 in permits and fees to build the $1,400 tree house.

“I paid $885 for a special permit to build the tree house,” he said. “There were additional fees of $975 to have the plats for the property redrawn to reflect the tree house and then I had to pay mail fees to notify the neighbors of hearings so they could voice any concerns they might have about the tree house.”

This example works as well as any as a backdrop for this question:  Is this an appropriate use of the lawmaking function, to deprive homeowners the right to build a safe, modest structure in their own yard for the use and wholesome enjoyment of their children? 

If that question seems loaded, then try this one instead:  Are people justified in seeking laws to preserve the character and quality of their neighborhoods and the values of their homes? 

I don’t pretend the answer is obvious, but let me offer this in favor of putting our zoning codes on a diet:  If you’re agitating against your neighbor’s tree house, the beater car on blocks down the street, a surplus of local churches, or your neighbor’s third-story add-on that will destroy the area’s “small-town charm,” you might consider whether you’ve got a case of First World Problems. 

Don’t sweat the small stuff.  That’s good self-help advice, and it’s good policy advice.

Tim Kowal

Tim Kowal is a husband, father, and attorney in Orange County, California, Vice President of the Orange County Federalist Society, commissioner on the OC Human Relations Commission, and Treasurer of Huntington Beach Tomorrow. The views expressed on this blog are his own. You can follow this blog via RSS, Facebook, or Twitter. Email is welcome at timkowal at


  1. Doesn’t that work both ways, though? In a world where children are starving, you’re upset about a $900 permit to build a treehouse?

    I actually favor, generally speaking, fewer zoning codes and the like. But I don’t care much for the First World Problem tact. It can be used against pretty much everything that isn’t starving, homelessness, sanitation, and so on. A great way to say “your problems don’t matter,” which is true in its own way (outside a narrow scope), but cannot go unaccompanied by “and mine don’t, either.”

    • The problem is not with the cost of the permit. It’s the fact the treehouse, as it turns out, is forbidden altogether without the requisite variance, which apparently may be withheld at the discretion of the zoning board.

      Maybe we have a issue with definitions, but I wouldn’t draw First World Problems so broadly as to say it includes “everything that isn’t starving, homelessness, sanitation, and so on.” The competing concerns at issue here are treehouse “blight,” on the one hand, and the right to make reasonable use and improvements on one’s own property, on the other. Only one of these would I call a First World Problem.

      • I wouldn’t draw First World Problems so broadly as to say it includes “everything that isn’t starving, homelessness, sanitation, and so on.”

        No, but my point is that it can be drawn that way. It’s essentially drawn in such a way to identify complaints and make them seem invalid.

        I don’t know why we should consider complaints about neighborhood attractiveness should be considered a First World Problem but not being able to have your house exactly the way you want it because neighbors object is not a FWP. You (like me) see the latter as more of a problem than a former, but these are all piddly problems, in the grand scheme of things, which is what the FWP flag is intended to point out.

        • Will,

          I’m not talking about “being able to have your house exactly the way you want it.” Indeed, that’s a First World Problem in itself: we pass land use restrictions that artificially spike the value of our homes, then take out HELOCs to install new kitchens and bathrooms and otherwise get them “exactly the way you want it,” and then wonder what to do about the housing bubble. Affordable housing is a real problem. Artificially-inflated housing is a First World Problem.

          The regulation that prevents Mark Grapin from building a treehouse probably has no traceable impact on this phenomenon. But I contend that attempting to solve First World Problems at the expense of the basic natural right to property (like mandating minimum lot sizes, high development and permitting fees, prohibitions on subdivisions, green regulations, etc.) beget more First World Problems—e.g., folks will move away from the over-regulated and artificially expensive housing markets (see Seattle) and “sprawl” into new areas; the “sprawl” problem then begets a new wave of anti-“sprawl” regulations, and these FWPs continue to spin out of control.

    • First world problem makes most sense when soemone’s bitching about how hard it is to finish a video game, or how they don’t have enough time to spend with their kids (despite their wife taking care of the kids 24/7)… The little things that we bitch about.

      • So is it a little thing to not be able to build the treehouse you want, or to not be able to be in a neighborhood where people aren’t allowed to build treehouses all over the place?

      • Tim, reading the Placentia case, I sure hope you got a trunkful of that $950K for your efforts! 🙂

        As for the rest, if you ever want to create a bunch of mini-Napoleons just give them the idea that they have power over you. I’ve seen hatred and animosity spring up from years long friendships over things like this.

        I had a friend in Santa Cruz. Lived on a hill that had been built up in stages by the developer. When he got to the top of the hill (vacant for a decade and now a popular walking area for the residents below) they went apeshit about it. Threatened law suits (many of the residents were of course lawyers) and more including spurious EPA investigations etc.

        My friend went to the homeowner’s meeting and said, “Look this is simple. The guy just wants to make money and the hill has the best views. We’ve got his flyers right here, we know how many lots there are and how much it would cost to BUY them ALL! Let’s just kick in money from the HOA buy it and develop our own park, everyone wins”.

        Naturally he was booed out of the meeting, literally. They spent 5 times as much as purchasing the land would have cost fighting the developer in court. Toward the end, the developer went up there with bulldozers and destroyed everything, trashed the trails, ran over the bushes and trees and made a un-walkable junkyard out of the land. Everyone hated everyone and my friend had to move away because not one person ever wanted to hear, “I told you so” so they initiated conversations (if any) by flipping him off and/or yelling at him. These people used to be friends. Napoleon complexes indeed.

        • We cannot compromise, Ward. Even in the face of an obvious solution.

          To compromise is to fail.

  2. The real policy question is where reasonable people would draw the line between “small stuff” and “stuff I have a legitimate gripe about.” If my neighbor starts running an auto body shop out of his garage, I think I have a reason to be upset about that and few people would suggest I ought not to be. If he wants to paint his house a garish color, I’m probably not really happy about that either, but that seems a little bit more like something I ought to have to tolerate. If he wants to put up a treehouse, most people would say that I pretty much have to deal.

    The political question is what to do about busybodies. Some people — the kinds of people who seek out appointments to zoning commissions and who file nuisance complaints and who run for election to homeowner’s association boards — have a deep need to ensure that all things are in harmony with their vision of The Way Things Ought To Be, because, after all, They Know Better. To them, there is no such thing as a small thing and they will work tirelessly to ensure that some sort of rule is in place to remedy every problem in their cosmos.

    • Or you might say that the busybodies have a legitimate complaint, in that they’re following the rules and throttling back on their desires and plans because the regulations say that what they want to do isn’t allowed. But here comes some guy who just does whatever he wants, and is all “forgiveness is easier than permission, suckers!”

      What’s the use of having rules if people can just ignore them?

      (Of course, my response to that would be why do we even need the rules in the first place, but I’ll admit that the busybodies prefer a nice safe world with hard-and-fast rules about everything, because you don’t have to think; you just have to pound yourself into whatever shape hole society’s consensus declares that you’re allowed to fit into.)

      • Yes, I think that’s a big part of the psychology there. Uncertainty and ambiguity are intolerable. Even if the rule is a bad rule, it’s still better than no rule at all. Enforcement of rules is an inherent good. When rules are not enforced, ego breaks down and projection of blame occurs.

        Thus does the treehouse at the other end of the street become an existential threat to western civilization.

        Smokey, this is not ‘Nam. This is bowling. There are rules.

    • A lot of the busybodyness come from worries about their neighbors doing things that will lower the value of their property. [1] Now that we’ve left the Golden Age of Real Estate, I expect it to subside.

      1. The dumbest example I saw first hand when when my HOA wanted to ban people putting basketball hoops above their garages. Apparently people of the level of wealth the HOA wanted to attract did their exercise at private health clubs.

  3. It’s not a First World Problem that someone was told he didn’t need a permit to do something and is now looking at financial penalties and mandated destruction of private property because the person he talked to was wrong. It’s not a First World Problem that the punishment for government incompetence is levied against the governed.

    • Yes on this.

      Although I think Tim was talking about the homeowner having a first-world problem. He was talking about the anonymous agitator being a first world dick.

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