Fighting for the Right to Control Other People's Property

Deborah Vollmer appears to be a nightmare neighbor in this story from the Washington Post (via Maggie's Farm).  She is absolutely hell-bent on preventing her neighbor from doing anything to their house that she would not do to it.  If her neighbor's aesthetics don't match hers, she takes them to court.

“Some people may question my motives,” Vollmer said. “But what’s happening in this town, these developers, tearing down old homes. I’m standing up for my rights. . . . And then this whole thing just kind of evolved” from that...

What could possibly be driving this woman? Friend and Chevy Chase resident John Fitzgerald said that her stubborn streak has roots deep in her past. Vollmer forged her career defending the rights of those without means. And that, he said, inculcated in her a desire to protect principles until the bitter end.

What right or principle is she fighting for?  The right to micro-manage her neighbor's property.  Read the article, this woman seems to be a total nightmare, all because she wants everyone else's house to look exactly like hers.

She should move to California.  She would fit right in.  She would be a perfect candidate to sit on the California Coastal Commission, for example.

We have a sort-of similar fight brewing here in Phoenix where a few local residents were trying to prevent another resident from tearing down and rebuilding his tired old house, which happened to have been designed by Frank Lloyd Wright's studios.  I appreciate Mr. Wright's work, but also know he designed some unlivable crap.  He was an artist, experimenting, and sometimes the experiments were not great.  He was also a businessman, always short of money, and sometimes his projects did not get his full artistic attention.  In my view, this was such a house.

I have the same answer for Ms. Vollmer that I do for those Wright house enthusiasts -- if you want to control a piece of property, buy it.  If you don't have the money, encourage other people to chip in.  But if you can't get enough people who similarly value your vision for the property to fund its acquisition, don't take the shortcut of using your influence with the government to impose the cost on taxpayers, or worse, on the individual property holder.


  1. LoneSnark:

    In New York whole neighborhoods are beyond modification, having been proclaimed by the government that society's desire for an ascetic overrules their desire to modify their own property in any way.

  2. Elam Bend:

    The article provides the address of the poor neighbors. I was unsurprised to see that Vollmer's yard was full of political signs. In my experience (regardless the party or cause) lots of signs or bumper stickers often translates into a boorish person who is territorial and wants to enforce on others their way.

  3. Trapper_John:

    Same thing went on here in Raleigh. Last September the judge sided with the homeowners:

  4. mesocyclone:

    At least in Phoenix, private individuals, not the government solved the Wright house problem: someone came along and bought it to preserve it.

  5. Jim Collins:


    Where I live we have a group that has gotten the local government to declare a section of town as a "Historic District". The people who live there can't make any changes to their houses without the approval of the "Historic Committee". A few of the things needing approval are changes in paint color, planting of trees, flowers and shrubs, the pruning or removal of shrubs and trees. One home owner requested to be able to remove a tree that he believed was dead. He was told that he would have to have a "professional arborist" certify that the tree was dead. Before he could get an "professional arborist" to certify the tree, it fell down during a high wind destroying his porch and damaging the front of his house. His insurance company is refusing to pay because they advised him to remove the tree.
    He is trying to sue the "Historic Committee" and the local government to pay for the damages to his house. The ironic thing is that the "Historic Committee" is threatening to cite him because he hasn't repaired the damages to his house in a timely manner. The funny thing is that none of the members of the "Historic Committee" live in the "Historic District".

  6. craftman:

    "...if you want to control a piece of property, buy it." A thousand times yes. Thomas Sowell makes the same point regarding people with "oceanview" property who later have their view obscured by another building. If you want a permanent ocean view, buy all of the land between you and the ocean!

    An excellent real world example of this put into practice is Matthew Inman's Indiegogo campaign "Let's Build a Goddamned Tesla Museum". They raised enough money (I contributed) to pay off the back taxes on the land, buy the property, and do some initial clean up.

  7. Jim A:

    In Houston, we have a the "Houston Archaeological and Historical Commission" (HAHC) that has to approve any removal, remodeling, or updating of homes in historic districts. It is based upon arcane rules and arbitrary judgement. These historic districts were generated upon mayoral authority only so we are hoping the next major will halt the creation of new historic districts. BTW, I live in one of them and it is a pain to get a change approved.

  8. Jim A:

    Do you live in Houston by chance?

  9. NL7:

    Agreed, we have a system for determining how to use and dispose of property, and it's called ownership. The advantage of ownership is knowing who has the authority without recourse to public campaigns, litigation, or bureaucratic rulemaking hearings. Simpler, streamlined decisions provide for more change and experimentation without needing the consensus of community elders.

  10. HenryBowman419:

    People such as Vollmer are essentially thieves. They apparently don't have enough money to purchase the property, so they try to get Big Guv to control the property according to their wishes. Big Guv is actually good at a few things, the two most obvious being theft and murder. There is no greater thief than the U.S. Government, save possibly for the Federal Reserve (which is quasi-government).

  11. Matthew Slyfield:

    Don't forget false imprisonment.

  12. Matthew Slyfield:

    "BTW, I live in one of them and it is a pain to get a change approved."

    Was the historic district you live in created before or after you bought you home?

  13. mesaeconoguy:

    I appreciate Mr. Wright's work, but also know he designed some unlivable crap.

    FLW was first an architect, and mostly a great one.

    He was definitely not an engineer, as many of his buildings suffered from leaks and damage any first year engineering student could fix.

    Significant work needed to be performed in the theater at Taliesin West, because it kept flooding.

  14. Me too:

    This is why I will never live with a home owners association or in an historical district

  15. SamWah:

    Sounds like Portland OR to me

  16. STW:

    I had aunt and uncle who built a FLWright house and furniture. It was/is gorgeous. It's also just a bit goofy. They lived outside of town so, when they eventually wanted a functional kitchen, no one needed consulting but their new architect.

  17. JW:

    I wonder what would happen if this parasite found herself on the business end of her blunt instrument?

    I'm sure an motivated neighbor could find a few things on her property to bring the authorities down on her self-absorbed head with.

  18. Sam P:

    Vollmer moved to California from Chevy Chase and started her career as an attorney for Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, later marrying the UFW co-founder Philip Vera Cruz. She moved back to Chevy Chase (probably to her childhood home) after she retired. Just over a decade after moving back, she got some new neighbors who demolished the house next door and removed a tree that she enjoyed... after going through all the hoops the somewhat anti-development town requires.

    When I first started reading the story I had wondered if this was about different generations, maybe a younger professional couple with kids, but no, they're probably pretty similar in age; in 2000, the Schwartz's then 31 year old son got married (and the wedding got a notice in the New York Times).

  19. Jim Collins:

    Western Pennsylvania.

  20. jhertzli:

    Once upon a time, the main complaint by leftists against suburban houses was "They all look just the same."