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Private Property and the Dispute over the Autzen Stadium ‘O’ UPDATE: Objection withdrawn

May 7, 2009

Update at the bottom.

I think this story from the Register Guard brings up a great point about private property rights.

Autzen Stadium South

Autzen Stadium South

Complaint takes aim at big ‘O’ on Autzen

The city will hold a hearing on a permit issue involving the tall, bright yellow letter
A Fairmount Hill woman is trying to get a three-story “O” removed from the south side of Autzen Stadium.

And she’s spurred action from city of Eugene sign regulators because the university didn’t apply for a building permit before putting the sign up — or for an exception that would allow the sign to be eight times larger than city zoning rules allow.

This wrestling over the big yellow “O” has gone on behind the scenes for more than a year. Fairmount Hill resident McKay Sohlberg lost in the first round in March when the Eugene planning director said the sign could stay. But Sohlberg has appealed and will take her case before a hearings officer on May 13.

The “O” sign rises like a neon moon over the tops of deciduous trees as seen from Sohlberg’s high, south-side home.


After receiving complaints, the city gave the university two choices: Immediately take the sign down or apply for an exception to the city sign rules and get a belated building permit — and pay double permit fees as a penalty for not applying in the first place. The university won an initial round in March when the Eugene planning director ruled the sign did merit an exception to the code. But Fairmount resident Sohlberg hired an attorney and filed a next-level appeal to a hearings officer.

The hundreds of pages of documents submitted by the university and its agents to the city do not include an explanation for why the university would hang a three-story-tall sign without addressing the city’s sign code or obtaining a building permit. The UO’s sign contractor, ES&A Sign and Awning Co., is a 44-year-old company with a West Coast reach and a reputation for top-flight work, including putting up signs for Sacred Heart Medical Center at RiverBend, Market of Choice and Hayward Field.


“The huge lemon-yellow sign is a beacon on an already impressively large structure,” she wrote in a letter to the city. “I love the ‘O’ on my sweatshirt, am a Duck fan, but I don’t want to stare at this immense sign from my house. … Just because the community likes the ‘product’ being promoted in this case, doesn’t mean that the sign should be allowed to stay.”

Sohlberg, a UO associate professor of communications disorders and sciences, declined comment for this story.

Her neighbor, Babette Jones, shares Sohlberg’s concern that the view is getting cluttered. Right now, two cranes associated with the basketball arena construction are in view.

“I certainly understand the neighbors,” she said. “They bought these homes and have nice views to look at. I don’t particularly think the ‘O’ is a nice view,” she said.

Read the whole article

Now, wait just a minute.

First of all – consider all the silly hoops that the Stadium had to go through to do something with their own property. This is exactly the kind of legal nightmare you get when you start letting the City determine what someone can do with their own property.

Secondly, I agree that Sohlberg bought her home. I’m also fairly certain she did not buy Autzen Stadium, nor did she buy a guarantee that Autzen Stadium wouldn’t do something with their own property that she might not like very much. Neither did the rest of the people in Fairmount Hill. They are certainly free to do so, if they choose. I don’t see anyone stopping them.

How the majority of people feel about the ‘O,’ shouldn’t really factor into this story. The over-arching question here is, why should Fairmount Hill have the right to decide what Autzen Stadium chooses to do with their own property?

Her initial complaint mentioned: “If left unchallenged, the “O” could set a precedent for future out-of-scale signs on other UO building projects.” Why does Sohlberg’s vision override the vision of the University, or Autzen Stadium? Also, I would counter that if Sohlberg wins this case, it will set precedent that a majority opinion gets to decided what a private entity can and cannot do with it’s own property. What happens when the majority of other neighborhoods determine that Fairmont Hill should be flattened in the name of some ‘noble vision?’ And if, in the end, it’s just a majority vote, does Autzen Stadium only get one vote on what it can do with its own property?

Thomas Sowell took this issue on concerning his own home with a view (be sure to read his entire article):

When I was house-hunting, one of the things that struck me about the house that I eventually settled on was the fact that there were no curtains or shades on the bathroom window in the back. The reason was that there was no one living on the steep hillside in back, which was covered with trees.

Since I don’t own that hillside, someday someone may decide to build houses there, which means that the bathroom would then require curtains or shades and our back porch would no longer be as private.

Fortunately for me, local restrictive laws currently prevent houses from being built on that hillside.

Also fortunately for me, my continued criticisms of such laws in this column have not made a dent in the local authorities.

But suppose that someday either the courts will strike down land use restrictions or local officials will respect property rights. Maybe I will be long gone by then and the new owner of this house will be angry at the diminished privacy — and consequently the diminished value of the house, caused by the building of houses on the hillside.

Would that anger be justified?

The fundamental question is: What did the homeowner buy? And would a change in laws deprive him of what he paid for?

Since the house and the wooded hillside are separate properties, the homeowner never paid for a hillside wooded in perpetuity.

If whoever owns the hillside finds that his property is worth more with houses on it, what right does the adjacent homeowner have to deprive the other owner of the benefits of building on that hillside or selling it to a builder?

True, my house was worth more because of the privacy provided by the wooded hillside. But there was no guarantee that the hill would remain wooded forever. Whoever buys the house buys its current privacy and the chance — not a certainty — that the hill will remain wooded.

If a homeowner wanted a guarantee that the hill would remain as is, he could have bought the hill. That way he would be paying for what he wanted, rather than expecting the government to deprive someone else for his benefit.

Read the rest

I’m no lawyer, but it seems to me that the dispute over the Autzen ‘O’ is basically the same argument. If Sohlberg and the residents of Fairmount Hill dislike what Autzen does with its property – perhaps they should consider purchasing the Stadium, rather than trying to strong-arm them by force of government.

Not to mention, I’m absolutely certain we wouldn’t hear the end of this if the owner of Autzen Stadium was trying to get a City ordinance to bulldoze Fairmount Hill…

UPDATE: Here is a screenshot of the view from Fairmount Hill, hat-tip KEZI (click image to watch their video coverage of the story):

McKay Sohlberg's view of Autzen Stadium

McKay Sohlberg's view of Autzen Stadium

UPDATE: This just in from the Register Guard:

A Fairmount resident has withdrawn her appeal of a city decision allowing the University of Oregon to place a large “O” on the south side of Autzen Stadium without first meeting government requirements. The O is eight times larger than the city zoning rules allow.

The UO did not apply for a building permit, or an exception to the zoning rules, before putting the letter up, and Fairmount Hill resident McKay Sohlberg filed a complaint with the city.

Eugene’s planning director ruled in March that the sign did merit an exception to the rules. Sohlberg filed an appeal to that decision, which was to be heard today. The city planning department said the appeal had been withdrawn and this afternoon’s scheduled hearing cancelled.

With the withdrawal of the appeal, city officials said, “The planning director’s decision approving the Autzen Stadium sign variance is effective.”

Allow me a victory image:

failedDuckGlad that the city basically sided with Autzen on this one, though it would have been nice for them to give more reasoning. Otherwise – the stadium could just remove the sign and paint the same sized ‘O’ on the stadium. Makes you wonder what does or does not merit an exception to “the rule”. What is the rule, and who decides it?

Go Ducks!

One Comment leave one →
  1. Randy permalink
    May 7, 2009 8:27 pm

    I could understand an argument for fair treatment since the school was allowed to install the “O” without proper permits and if I were to put a huge “O” on the front of my house I would have to get all the proper permits or probably get fined. However, this individuals argument is that it is not visually attractive which is bull crap. I have a neighbor with purple trim and I think it looks horrible. However, it is her right and her house. I know this seems like a small issue but it points at a much larger problem. Regardless of what political party you are from our goal in government is to push our views and agendas on others. Whether it be Socialized medicine, Social insecurity, Welfare, Abortion, Gay Marriage, Evolution, or a Big frikin “O” on the side of a sports stadium. What happened to the Jedaeu-Christian values that we were founded on and our individualist mentality that made made this country the land of the free; I hardly feel free, when I have to constantly wonder if my neighbor likes what I did with my yard.

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