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Zoning: The New Tyranny

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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. Zoning laws have become far more invasive and restrictive in recent years. If you want to use your own land, increasingly you have to beg, bribe, and grovel to the nearest government bureaucrat. Local zoning officials are increasingly petty dictators, ruling and ruining the lives of average citizens.

Flosmoor, Illinois, in an act of legislative snobbery, banned pickup trucks from its streets — and even from private driveways. Coral Gables, Florida, charges residents $35 to get a permit to paint the bathroom in their home — or the living room, or any other room. Local building inspectors patrol the streets looking for painting trucks parked at homes that have not paid the permit fee.

Los Angeles prohibits freelance writers from working out of their homes in residential neighborhoods, fearing that the tap-tap-tap of their keyboards could devastate the quality of life in their neighborhoods. Similarly, Chicago issued a cease-and-desist order to a couple using two personal computers in their home to write software and magazine articles. Virtually all of the city’s 200,000 home-based businesses or offices are in violation of the city’s zoning code. The city government recently proposed a new home-office zoning code that would have required homeowners to pay hefty licensure fees each year and restrict the home office to no more than 10 percent of the home’s floor space — thereby creating a pretext for bureaucrats with measuring tapes to invade thousands of homes.

Guilford, Connecticut, bans takeout windows at any restaurant or food-service place within town limits. (The town does permit takeout service from within restaurants, a practice which does not so severely tarnish the town’s dignity.) Pasadena, California, banned residents from having weeds in their yards, a policy sometimes referred to as “crabgrass fascism.”

Eleven states currently allow zoning restrictions — i.e., denials of permission to use one’s own property — based on aesthetic criteria alone. Salinas, California, bureaucrats came up with the perfect grant of power to themselves over home designs: “Control the amount of variety in housing types and designs to avoid both monotony and visual chaos.” With the type of “creativity” consistently favored by government arts agencies, one can only shudder at the notion of giving government employees dictatorial power over home design.

Carol Stream, Illinois, rigorously polices the roofs, windows, home colors, and building materials of homes to insure that they are not too similar or too dissimilar to their neighbors. Since the standards are almost completely vague, the local bureaucrats are left with nearly unlimited power over homeowners and builders — and the result can be “spot zoning,” or bureaucrats making up specific rules for every person with a plot of land and an appeal for a permit.

Zoning routinely sacrifices some people’s freedom to inflate other people’s property values. In Takoma Park, Maryland (a suburb of Washington, D.C.), up to a thousand renters (eight percent of the city’s population) were evicted in 1988, primarily to boost the property values of a minority of homeowners. The county government launched a crackdown under a 65-year-old, archaic zoning law that prohibited subletting of apartments — an absurd rule for Takoma Park’s large Victorian homes. The crackdown was denounced as “a scheme of social engineering for removal of lower income tenants.” At least one of the displaced tenants moved from his apartment into his ten-year-old car.

Connecticut bureaucrats issued a $1,500 citation to John Fraenza of Branford, Connecticut, after he scattered grass seed on his backyard. The bureaucrats claimed that the grass seed somehow disturbed a government-designated “wetland.” But if the land had really been that wet, the seeds would have vanished without a trace and no controversy would have occurred.

Local governments have invoked zoning codes to require builders of apartment buildings to install whirlpool tubs and special electric ranges (in one case identified by brand name).

Boston bureaucrats, invoking historic preservation regulations, banned a Catholic church from altering the lighting, windows, paint scheme, doors, finishes, and a painting of the Assumption of Mary inside the church. The bureaucrats decreed that the interior of the church “has major aesthetic importance independence of its religious symbolism” — and thus that they themselves were justified in proclaiming themselves pope.

A 1991 zoning ordinance allows the city of Camarillo, California, “to abate any problem that diminishes property values,” as The Los Angeles Times reported. Camarillo City Manager William Little explained: “It’s broad enough to cover virtually anything. But we are very judicious in what we go up against.” Little’s remark exemplifies how zoning to protect property values gives government officials almost unlimited power to restrict the use of property — thereby defeating the whole notion of property rights.

While many people conceive of zoning as government simply preventing sharply conflicting land uses, such as building an ammunitions plant next to an apartment complex, zoning has become far more invasive and arbitrary in recent years. Nowadays, we have constantly changing opinions on architectural correctness, enforced with the iron fist of local government. And for those who violate the planners’ latest fashion, the police, or the bulldozer is the ultimate fate.

The essence of zoning is the shotgun behind the door — the pending call on police to drag someone away in handcuffs and bulldoze their home. Zoning is not simply a question of bureaucrats and local politicians coming up with Byzantine ordinances — but of the full force of government waiting to fall on the head of anyone who violates one of the constantly changing local land-use decrees.

In Skanesteles, New York, the local government responded to one couple’s zoning violations by sending in sheriff’s deputies to drag out and jail the owner’s wife and raze their $350,000 lakefront home.

The Office of Code Enforcement in Alexandria, Virginia, sent certified letters to twenty-two homeowners in June 1993 threatening to condemn their properties unless they fixed chipping paint on their windowsills or door frames.

A Princeton, New Jersey, storeowner was threatened with a 90-day jail sentence in 1993 for the crime of having a few barbecue grills lined up in front of his hardware store. Though Irving Urken had put the grills and other goods outside his store for 57 years, a new zoning ordinance banned anything in front of the store — except books, flowers, plants, vegetables, and newspapers.

East Hampton, Long Island, issued a warrant for the arrest of a food-shop owner guilty of an unauthorized exhibition of large orange gourds. Jerry Della Femina, the co-owner of a local market, had a few dozen pumpkins stacked in front of his store. Village bureaucrats ruled that the pumpkins were the equivalent of a sign advertising the sale of pumpkins, and thus the owner needed a sign permit. The shop was in a historic district, and government officials may have thought that similar markets in East Hampton in the 19th century never placed pumpkins in front of their stores.

In September 1993, the New York City buildings commissioner bushwhacked Fordham University. Fordham had received permission from the city government to build a 480-foot radio tower at its campus in the Bronx. After the radio tower was almost half finished, the city government reversed its position and revoked the building permit. The government’s action cost Fordham over half-a-million dollars.

Planning bureaucrats, like the pettifoggers that they actually are, consider their petty edicts to be above challenge. Newtown Borough, Pennsylvania, requires citizens to pay a $10,000 nonrefundable fee in order to challenge the constitutionality of the local zoning ordinance.

Government abuses of zoning laws were clearly foreseen back in 1926 by Supreme Court Justice Willis Van Devanter. In his dissent to the Euclid vs. City of Ambler decision — the case that opened the floodgates to zoning — Van Devanter wrote: “The plain truth is that the true object of the ordinance in question is to place all property in a strait-jacket. The purpose to be accomplished is really to regulate the mode of living of persons who may hereafter inhabit [the community].” A brief in that case declared: “That our cities should be made beautiful and orderly is, of course, in the highest degree desirable, but it is even more important that our people should remain free.”

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    James Bovard serves as policy advisor to The Future of Freedom Foundation. He has written for the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New Republic, Reader's Digest, Playboy, American Spectator, Investors Business Daily, and many other publications. He is the author of a new e-book memoir, Public Policy Hooligan. His other books include: Attention Deficit Democracy (2006); The Bush Betrayal (2004); Terrorism and Tyranny (2003); Feeling Your Pain (2000); Freedom in Chains (1999); Shakedown (1995); Lost Rights (1994); The Fair Trade Fraud (1991); and The Farm Fiasco (1989). He was the 1995 co-recipient of the Thomas Szasz Award for Civil Liberties work, awarded by the Center for Independent Thought, and the recipient of the 1996 Freedom Fund Award from the Firearms Civil Rights Defense Fund of the National Rifle Association. His book Lost Rights received the Mencken Award as Book of the Year from the Free Press Association. His Terrorism and Tyranny won Laissez Faire Book's Lysander Spooner award for the Best Book on Liberty in 2003. Read his blog. Send him email.