On the Other Hand...

by Jim Davies

Own or Zone: You Choose


Take a trip down NH Route 103A on the East side of Lake Sunapee, and you'll notice an Historic Marker, telling of how in 1892 one Dr John D Quackenbos bought 400 acres of the forest between your position and the lake, and made of it the first-ever Zoned Development in the United States.

Towns and cities all across America caught on quickly to the idea that their governments could write laws about how real estate could be developed, so as to make its overall appearance more attractive - to those with political clout.

Thanks to zoning laws, working and residing, by and large, get separated; and so do different classes of residence. Single family dwellings are often forbidden from areas marked for apartments, and vice versa, and in many areas those curiously named and sometimes untidy-looking "mobile homes" are definitely a no-no. The effect is an architectural uniformity that many find pleasing. Though some variety is allowed within each separate class, quirky, individualistic ideas are suppressed, for the common good.

And the "common good", of course, has to do as much with the elevation and maintenance of property prices - frequently the occupants' largest investment by far - as it has to do with aesthetic pleasure. No wonder zoning is popular. With all this going for it, does zoning have a flip side? - it certainly does. Let's look at some, and see why we'd actually be better off without it.

1. Expensive Housing . Compared with a free market where no zoning rules would apply, zoning restricts the supply of developable land; so, by Econ 101, it hikes house prices. Very nice, for those already owning a home; very bad news for those who don't. All must therefore agree: zoning "shuts out" people of low income, and favors the better-off. It must therefore be described as an elitist law designed to keep the richer, richer.

Zoning hits the poorest, hardest. For example, some communities use zoning laws to ban mobile homes outright; they are "unsightly". So they may be, in some eyes; but to those who can afford nothing grander, they are HOME.

2. Back-Door Racism . For various reasons we can examine another time, most blacks are poor. By enacting zoning laws against small lots and mobile homes, communities can and do prohibit low-income housing (without saying it in so many words) and so exclude most Blacks.

To my mind, this is the most brutally hypocritical aspect of zoning. Affluent "Liberal" residents of such a town can pass a pleasant evening sipping Chablis with their friends on the deck, telling each other horror stories about the Klan; yet by failing to vote for Selectpersons who promise to abolish zoning at the first opportunity, they might just as well have erected a sign at the Town entrance: "BLACKS NOT WELCOME HERE". By contrast with such creeps, Klansmen at least have the virtue of being honest.

3. Wealth Destruction . All wealth is created only by private business initiative, and zoning helps crush it, so we all lose. The story of a good friend of mine illustrates how.

John bought a gas station, but could not make it pay on gas sales alone. He had to sell soda and other convenience items to clear a profit. But the Town Zoners in their wisdom refused him permission. Gasoline yes, potato chips no.

Now he is out of work, and his customers have to drive out of their way for gas. He tried to earn grocery money by running tag sales on the forecourt but last month a busybody neighbor snitched to the Zoners that he was "retailing" and they issued him a Cease and Desist Order. He now has no cash coming in whatever. Zoning, like other goverment laws, is a poverty-creating machine.

4. Liberty Curtailment . Another friend, another example: Ken Blevens. You may recall his name. He ran for US Senate in 1996, and would have won, had his opponents been properly disqualified for violating their own election laws.

Ken owns some land near Concord, and some years ago, decided to divide it into two parcels and give one to each of his two sons. The local tin gods of Zoning told him he couldn't do that, so demonstrating that even though he pays all its expenses, he doesn't truly own "his" property. Nor do you own yours.

Ken's costly, 5-year fight against them in government court is still going on.  

The Alternative: Freedom.

If all zoning were abolished (as I propose) is there any other way to achieve those of its results which are good and worthwhile? You betcha! Let's see how.

In a word: freedom. Freedom for everyone, to do exactly as he wishes with his or her own property. Notice: THAT NECESSARILY MEANS NOBODY CAN DO ANYTHING WITH ANYONE ELSE'S. Notice also: freedom includes the liberty to make voluntary contracts with neighbors, eg to enhance the overall character of the area; but it does NOT include license to compel everyone to join in, by majority vote.

Such "restrictive covenants" are two-edged. In due course the property will be offered for sale, and the covenant may add to its price or subtract from it, depending on the new set of values brought by the potential buyer. So owners will not rush blindly into such covenants, nor make them binding for long periods; for their own interests will be at stake.

Freed from zoning, would people build quirky houses? Maybe! But again, every home owner is also an investor, with covenant or without. He will not alter it so as to destroy his own investment; rather, the contrary. And that's the strongest possible guarantee of good neighborliness: economic self-interest.

But if you really can't stand your neighbor's housepaint, don't run off and squeal to Nanny in Town Hall. Just offer to pay him money to change the color.

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