The Evil of Zoning
Zoning is a command by government to use land in a particular way. When a city government zones land as residential, it is illegal to carry out commercial activities there, such as doing business inside one's home. It can even be illegal to hold religious meetings in someone's house. Related to zoning are land-use laws and permit requirements that arbitrarily limit what the owner may legally do, and impose costs in addition to regular taxation.
by Fred E. Foldvary, Senior Editor
Zoning is often used to limit economic growth. Cities mandate controls on population density, it being illegal to have more people per acre or hectare than the legal maximum. This adds to urban sprawl and also prevents low-income people from obtaining housing. Zoning prevents converting single-family dwellings to apartments or other higher-density residences.
Zoning is an example of privilege seeking, when the property owners of a neighborhood seek to exclude particular types of land use from their area. Instead of buying this benefit, they use government force to deprive others of benefits and obtain an implicit subsidy.
Historically, zoning is a rather recent intervention. The first comprehensive zoning law was enacted in New York City in 1916. Now almost all cities in the USA have zoning, but Houston, Texas, has been a notable major exception.
The alternative to zoning is covenants, or contracts among property owners. Residential associations often have covenants in which the members agree to adhere to particular rules, such as keeping the front yards from going to weeds. Often, a developer builds a community with a harmonious style of architecture, which covenants later preserve. Anyone moving in needs to sign the community contract explicitly agreeing to the master deed and bylaws.
An illustration of the evil that zoning is capable of occurred in Fairfax County, Virginia, as reported by Vin Suprynowicz in The Libertarian, April 8. The county government developed a golf course near a private golf driving range owned by John Thoburn. The government operation took away one-third of his business, but the main problem was with the zoning.
According to his guest column in the Washington Post, March 15, 2001, to get the occupancy permit, Thoburn planted over 700 trees around the range at a cost of $125,000. But the Fairfax County government now demands that 98 trees be moved to different locations, despite prior inspections and approvals.
The berm, a ledge separating Thoburn's facility from the Dulles Toll Road, is subject to two contradictory zoning conditions requiring two different heights, and the Fairfax County officials refuse to say which berm height they want. Also, they haven't told Thoburn exactly which trees need to be moved.
Thoburn wrote, "This zoning harassment has been going on for years. One zoning regulation ... allows a 'snack food concession.' Yet Fairfax County issued a zoning violation for selling hot dogs and Cokes. They say we can sell pre-wrapped roast beef deli sandwiches, but not microwave hot dogs. We can sell Coca-Cola in a bottle or can, but not in a cup. Meanwhile my competitors, the Fairfax County golf facilities, have carte blanche from the county to sell beer and pizza."
Post Metro columnist Marc Fisher reported (March 22) that the county did not require itself to plant hundreds of trees or build massive berms, and the county did permit itself to offer putting greens and miniature golf, neither of which Thoburn is allowed to offer. When Thoburn last year balked at spending another $30,000 to move 98 trees which the county says are in the wrong location, he was ordered to close. He refused, was taken to court, held in contempt, and has been imprisoned in the Fairfax County Jail until he shuts his business or plants the trees. The county has also continues to assess him fines of $1,000 per day.
In his press release, Vin Suprynowicz says, "The nature of a thing is best judged by its fruit, and the evil fruit of planning and zoning is a law-abiding family man like John Thoburn sitting in prison while his wife and children flee the local jurisdiction in terror, for all the world like terrified Lincolnshire peasants fleeing the soldiers of Prince John.
"The solution here is not merely to urge the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors to back off in this particular case, while tens of thousands of other American property owners see their rights and freedoms similarly stripped away in slightly less outrageous pick-and-rolls every day."
The solution to the evil done by such confiscation of property and denial of liberty by all levels of government must be an amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America to repeal all zoning laws, building codes, land-use restrictions, and permit costs and delays regarding enterprise and real estate. Only the absolute and total eradication of this government power will prevent arbitrary restrictions and costs from creeping back in.
Instead of forced zoning, there can and should be voluntary agreements among people, with covenants, easements, and community master deeds. If you want to benefit by restricting your neighbor's use of property, you should compensate him.
People are morally owed compensation for the benefits given up when some have exclusive control of land, but that benefit can and should be paid as a rent to the community, rents that also serve as the prime source of public revenue. Paying rent to the community is the efficient and equitable way to pay for and receive benefits from land. Once the rent is paid, then the title holder should have complete rights of possession, free to do with his land whatever is peaceful and honest.
-- Fred Foldvary
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Copyright 2001 by Fred E. Foldvary. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, which includes but is not limited to facsimile transmission, photocopying, recording, rekeying, or using any information storage or retrieval system, without giving full credit to Fred Foldvary and The Progress Report.