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31


THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 31, July 1, 1997

Zoning Away the American Dream

By John Cornell
102122.3062@compuserve.com

Exclusive to The Libertarian Enterprise

         Many claim to be against big government and criticize the federal government for its omnipotence, but turn around and advocate the same tyranny at the state and local levels. Supposedly the government which governs best is government close to home. Such an attitude is best highlighted by a quote from the American Revolution, "Which do I have to fear most: a tyrant three thousand miles away, or three thousand tyrants not a mile away?"
         Zoning started in America in the early twentieth century as a supposedly legitimate means of keeping "incompatible" uses of land from locating near each other, such as a junkyard next to a schoolyard (what's the difference?) or a nuclear weapons waste disposal facility down the street from a hospital. As with all government, zoning and land use bureaus have since grown, and a Supreme Court decision in 1926 gave power to local governments to continue the spread of such abuses of property rights. Today we have a nightmare of perversely restrictive and often contradictory regulations to the point that you can't breathe in peace in your home without potentially being accused of "violating" your neighbors miles away.
         The politburo zoning nazis masquerade as the "keepers of American standards" to allegedly ensure price support for real estate or other "community" or "family" values. In Lost Rights, James Bovard examines this legalized plunder of property rights by government and concludes, "Modern zoning laws presume that no citizen has a right to control his own land -- and that every citizen has a right to control his neighbor's land." He asserts that zoning laws have been used to discriminate along racial and class lines, drive people out of business, manage property (at the owner's expense), take property by force (by eminent domain or alleged code violations), artificially raise property values (at the expense of others), impose arbitrary aesthetic values, and dole out political favors. Your home and your land are no longer your castle.
         The result? Overcrowding, higher taxes, arbitrary, confusing, ever-changing laws, forced conformity, bankruptcy, discrimination, etc. Often the bureaucrats are reacting to pressure from the special interests of anyone in the neighborhood with enough money or enough vocal decibels. Citizens with NIMBY (Not in My BackYard) mind sets advocate "Put it Next to Someone Else" (or PINTSE, denoting the size of their tolerance.) The stupid irony of the whole mess is that the same government that stops a shopping center from going in down the street from your home turns around and forces slums in next to other nice neighborhoods, in "deals" in which government-owned land is sold for a fraction of its market value. Fort Collins, Colorado, is good at this. Zoning is a two-edged sword (but government never cuts itself).
         So who's to say how one person's land affects another's property value -- at least in a free market? An infinite variety of factors affect market values, upwards and downwards. Who has a right to try to control any of them? If I can force my neighbor to mow his lawn, paint his exterior an "appropriate" color, or garage his junk car, where does it stop? If a nearby, major employer suddenly decides to close the local plant and move its employees out of town, and I see the reduction in market value of my home resulting from the decrease in demand, do I have a right to force that company to keep the facility open and retain its employees on its payroll? Or sue the company for damages equal to the loss I claim I've suffered? Granted, I may be able to demand that my neighbor follow the rules of a homeowners' association that we've voluntarily signed; there is a difference between enforcing a contract and initiating arbitrary force for arbitrary reasons, such as governments impose. And if I have a dispute with my association, I can always take them to court, or they can take me, and we can let the so-called justice system stand by as a third-party arbitrator. But what if I feel a need to sue my government for the rules they impose without my voluntary agreement? Then I'm a plaintiff at the mercy of the defendant for my justice.
         And observe older "historic" sections of cities. There are collectivists who want to "preserve" some "nostalgic" homes by forcing the owners to remodel them according to a government-mandated, prescribed aesthetic formula to make them "fit" with the surrounding old buildings, even though the original builders a century ago never intended any to look alike. It seems these are the same people who wail about the "cookie cutter" homes in the newer subdivisions at the edge of the city, despite the fact that people are willingly buying those in droves. The "preservers of our heritage" like conformity when they have the power to force it on you, but don't like it when people do it of their own free will.
         Even the rural countryside is not immune from these forms of despotism. Suppose you're a farmer and own a quarter section (160 acres) of undeveloped farmland several miles from a large city. People fed-up with urban life are building on acre-sized lots scattered across the countryside. A variety of homes or small developments of custom homes have popped up next to your farm. Several scores of people are now your neighbors, happy with the view of the mountains your land provides.
         Now you're nearing retirement and want to pass as much wealth as possible to your children. Because of increased demand from a new stream of urban exiles, you decide to subdivide into a planned development with three hundred medium and large homes, on lots a fraction of an acre. The houses are two stories high, with paved streets, sidewalks, sewers, streetlights, cable and other amenities you wish to provide, in addition to ones the county (or annexing city) force you to include.
         The new rural gentry become furious. You're accused of destroying their "lifestyle," "disrupting the rural serenity," "invading the ambiance," and spoiling "their" view of the mountains and of generally "crowding them out." They claim the houses you intend to build, or the small shopping center at one end of the development, will disturb them. They squeal about ecology, drag out the weasels and rodents and other rabid wildlife and parade them as natives needing special attention. The noisemakers squawk that they're used to your land being empty, and that it's your duty to leave it the way they found it. Now you're a "rich, greedy developer." If you sell to a construction and development company, then they're "big, evil corporate." Even worse if the developer is from out-of-state. (Horror of horrors, let's make this a restricted neighborhood to preserve local -- er, American values.)
         And if you don't build, your neighbors will sue you because of the smells coming from your cows.
         So the local thugs confiscate your property before you face the inheritance taxation authorities, the former roughing you up so the latter can bury you. (Life's a tax, and then you die. And then it's still a tax.)
         A recent example of this occurred in Loveland, Colorado. Some "we-got-here-first" neighbors created such an uproar that the city put to a vote whether the owner of a proposed development could exercise his property rights, despite the fact that he had painstakingly met every city restriction and was approved by the local zoning and land use bureaucrats.
         The "people" denied them to him. He lost a substantial investment. So much for "democracy."
         And if you're not sued? They'll probably put up with you for a while, see their own real estate value appreciate, sell it, and move farther out into the wilderness. Then cry all the way to the bank.
         If I were threatened with such asset forfeiture, I'd file a counterclaim. If the plaintiffs asserted that my land provides them with value by being empty, and that I must keep it that way, I'd declare that the value they receive is a subsidy. I'd sue for back charges, equal to the value of what I could realize on the open market for that land, plus all the costs I've incurred to develop it and defend it, plus the return I'd have made if I had developed it. Maybe this wouldn't work, but I'd demand that if they want to manage my property, they'd better purchase it outright at my price -- or shut up.
         My neighbor might keep all kinds of crap in his yard, his property an unendurable eyesore. But to paraphrase the saying, "I may not agree with you, but I'll defend till death your right to say it," I say, "I may think your house and yard are ugly and distasteful, but I'll defend till death your right to keep them that way."


John Cornell is a finance professional whose personal goal is to spread rational, Objectivist and libertarian ideas by writing and publishing libertarian science fiction and literary novels, stories and articles and occasional pieces of political satire and humor.


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