Once upon a time there was a farmer who owned 1,000 acres of land. As a neighborly gesture, he sold a friend a lot on which to build a home. He gave his friend a really good deal on the lot, which enabled him build a nicer home in which to live.
[dropcap]A[/dropcap]s time passed, the farmer’s friend told several of his other friends about the great deal he had gotten and his friends told their friends. As the word spread, a number of these people approached the farmer who also sold them inexpensive lots on which to build and they too were able to build nicer homes. Their homes were scattered out and everyone enjoyed a great deal of privacy and all were happy.
Then one day, the farmer sold a lot that was next to one of the homes to one of his field hands. This less affluent worker was only able to put a mobile home on his lot because that was all he could afford. When this happened, the owners of the homes panicked and ran to their local government demanding that the farmer’s remaining land be zoned to prevent any more mobile homes from being placed in the area. They argued that without zoning more mobile homes would come into the area and it would cause the value of their homes to go down. Sound familiar? (No one said anything about the fact that they were able to put more money into their homes because they didn’t have to pay a big price for their lots.)
Before you read further, I want you to understand that I am adamantly opposed to zoning. Whenever I make that statement, invariably someone will ask me something like, “But what if someone wanted to put a cell tower, or service station or rock quarry next to your home?” To which I reply, if they own the property they can do with it whatever they want. “But,” they will ask, “don’t you want your investment to be protected?” And that is where my objection begins. I don’t believe anyone has the right to any protection that is stolen from their neighbors by government fiat.
Let’s look at another situation. Across town another farmer also had 1,000 acres. He decided he would develop his property into a planned community. He took his time, met with surveyors, architects, builders and potential investors and designed a community according to his vision. He built roads, put in water and sewer lines, underground utilities, and placed strict restrictions on each lot as to the size and architecture of the homes that could be built. He set aside part of his property as a buffer area around the community to protect it from unwanted development. When he finally was ready to start selling, he had invested a tremendous amount of money, agreed not to sell the part of his property he set aside as a buffer and as a result, his lots were expensive; however, they provided the protection that many people wanted! Unlike the farmer on the other side of town who was selling lots for a few thousand dollars per acre, these lots ran well into the hundreds of thousands. Those who bought one of his lots could feel comfortable spending as much as they wanted on an expensive home. They knew in advance that their investment would be protected from undesirable uses because they were paying a high price for this protection. I fully support this concept. It’s called restrictive covenants!
My problem with zoning comes when people who are unwilling or unable to pay for this of type protection want to steal it by restricting what their neighbors can do even though they don’t own the neighbor’s property and aren’t willing to compensate them for restricting its use. This is nothing short of using government to commit legalized thievery. It creates divisiveness and bitterness and pits neighbor against neighbor with government as the arbitrator. This ultimately happens in all collectivist forms of government; it destroys initiative, erodes entrepreneurial spirit and seeks to provide equal outcome rather than equal opportunity. That is not the formula that built America.
Once zoning is in place it is easy to amend it in ways that can destroy people’s investments even if they are trying to comply with the regulations. It widens the gap between the haves and the have not’s and makes it increasingly difficult for those trying to improve their circumstances to do so. It brings rise to the formation of non-profit organizations that rely on government funding that get favorable treatment often withheld from private individuals or companies.
Let me offer a couple of examples with which I have personal experience that will illustrate what I am describing. I once purchased 1.1 acres of property that was zoned multi-family, sixteen units per acre. Before I could build on this property, the zoning was changed to single family, eight units per acre. When I asked the planning staff to show me how the property could accommodate eight single family homes and still meet the setback and street frontage requirements of the zoning, they finally had to admit that it could only be subdivided into four conforming lots. The property still sits vacant years after its purchase and the community has lost what would have been sixteen affordable living units.
In another transaction, I purchased 3.3 acres of property that was zoned multi-family, ten units per acre. I wanted to build two sixteen unit buildings on the property. At the time, the zoning ordinance required a “Planned Unit Development” review for any project exceeding four units per lot. I completed the lengthy set of documents that were required for the review, which I assumed were for the purpose of making sure the project complied with the ordinance. I submitted my request to the planning department and asked for no variances from the ordinance. A public hearing was scheduled at which members of the public, some from the other side of town, showed up to protest the project. After a lengthy session where every outlandish claim possible was made, the hearing was continued until the following month. This continued month after month for nine months before the project was finally approved and forwarded to City Council. Once again, a public hearing was scheduled and just as had happened at the planning board, the hearing was continued to the next meeting after a lengthy session. Nine more months of hearings at the council level resulted in a motion being made to approve the project only to die for lack of a second. This effectively halted the project because under the rules, it could not be resubmitted to planning and zoning for twelve more months.
After this debacle, I took the same project to another state where laws were not administered politically, purchased a property with the correct zoning and made application for a “Planned Unit Development” review by their planning board. Since the project met all of the requirements of their ordinance, as it had done with the one in my hometown, the planning board approved it at the first meeting and sent it to their city council. A week later the city council approved the project and allocated $35,000 to bring the water and sewer to the property. Oh, by the way, the water and sewer were already on the property where I first wanted to build and the property met all aspects of the ordinance. No variances were requested.
These are perfect examples of how with zoning, nothing is certain and projects are approved or denied based on political pressure and favoritism. I could cite numerous other examples of how private developers are harassed and mistreated while non-profit groups are granted favors and special treatments. In an area where much lip service is given to the need for affordable housing, just these two projects could have provided nice housing for 48 families at rates well below the mid-range of rentals in the market and done so without government assistance.
Zoning, like most other governmental regulation of private enterprise, starts out well intentioned, but once the governed learn that they can increase the value of their property at the expense of those still trying to get theirs, it becomes a quagmire that buries reason in a pit of selfish greed. It is an infringement on individual property rights and one of the biggest reasons many zoned areas have a severe shortage of affordable housing. The “Not In My Backyard” mentality that zoning creates drives away jobs, creates artificially high prices, makes it increasingly difficult for young people to participate in the American dream and generates divisiveness and contempt throughout the community. An additional problem is the huge cost burden required to administer zoning laws that is heaped on taxpayers, many of whom, like me, totally disagree with the laws.
No one should be entitled to buy cheap and then add to the value of their assets at the expense of others. That’s what zoning attempts to do, and its popularity is growing as we become more and more of a “Something For Nothing” society. My fear is that unless checked, this movement will eventually lead to a socialistic society and the destruction of America as we know it.