Sunday, July 16, 2006


There are times when seemingly trivial questions cry out for serious answers. The answers can inspire us to think about bigger issues, about who we are as individuals, neighbors and citizens.

When D.S. of Concord, Mass., e-mailed me, I doubt that she expected a response exploring people's relationships to property and ownership. She simply wanted me to weigh in on a dispute she and her husband have been having for some time...about portable outhouses. Her husband "seems to think it's OK to use an unlocked `handy house' that is on private property," she writes. "I'm not so sure."

D.S.'s husband is an avid walker, and there are many portable toilets unlocked on properties along his walking route.

"He believes that they're there to take advantage of for a person in need," D.S. writes. "I've told him that it's personal property, as someone is paying to lease it and have it maintained."

He responds that, if the owners didn't want others to use them, they'd put a lock on the door. D.S. is correct, of course. Trespassing on private property is illegal. And, as far as I know, there is no exemption for those with weak bladders.

But should property owners press charges against those who use their portable outhouses? If the outhouse wasn't locked and if the user didn't deface it, I don't believe so. They presumably have the legal right to do so, but this is counterbalanced by an obligation to the community.

There are times when the needs of the community should trump the rights of the individual under the law -- not as a legal matter, but as a moral one. A classic example of this, one about which I've written before, arose in 1995, when the plant at Malden Mills in Lawrence, Mass., burned to the ground shortly before Christmas. Owner Aaron Feuerstein had no legal obligation to keep his employees on payroll after the fire, which forced an all-but-complete shutdown of production, but he kept them on anyway.

"You're supposed to do what's right because it's right," he told me at the time, "not because there's a payoff."

Joseph Singer, a professor at Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Mass., wrote about the obligations of ownership in "The Edges of the Field" (The Edges of the Field: Lessons on the Obli... ). His title is drawn from an Old Testament passage in Leviticus that instructs property owners not to reap to the very edges ofthe fields they own nor to gather fallen grapes from their vineyards, but instead to leave those for the poor. Singer's notion is that, regardless of ownership, possession of a resource implies an obligation to the larger community.While it's doubtful that the owners of the portable toilets in D.S.'s neighborhood had Leviticus in mind or were motivated by intentions as noble as Feuerstein's in leaving their facilities unlocked, it's clear that nonetheless the facilities are serving people in need.

If a given outhouse were locked, it would be wrong for D.S.'s husband to break in. But if, when his need arises, he happens to come upon one thatis unlocked, I say no harm, no foul.The right thing to do would be for D.S.'s husband to seek out the owners to ask permission, of course, perhaps by leaving a note of inquiry. But if no one is there and he's got to go, then he's got to go.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This AM I read with great interest (in the Orange County Register) your article about the portable potty. I have been on a remodeling project since February 1 2006. The contractor put a portable potty in my front yard. Right after this was done--our association where I live had all of the trees trimmed all over the hillside community. The next door neighbors told me that all of the tree trimmers were using my toilet. My comment was that thank God I was getting my money's worth ($90 a month).

Many times I have opened my garage door and found some stranger running out of the bathroom and saying "I am sorry." I always tell them to feel free to use the toilet whenever they want. I also hand out cold bottles of water to all the different workers that appear on my street.

I feel this is my contribution to my community. Thanks for your great articles. Keep up the good work.


Rosemarie Persek
Anaheim, CA