Property Rights Foundation of America®
Founded 1994

Zoning's Downside
The Broad Picture Overlooked by the Press

Carol W. LaGrasse
Property Rights Foundation of America, Inc.

National Conference of Editorial Writers
September 20, 1997
Madison, Wisconsin

Thank you for inviting me to your editorial writer's conference. It is an honor to speak at your gathering and a happy occasion for me to be back in Madison for the first time since many visits to my brother while he accomplished his Ph.D. here a number of years ago.

The Property Rights Foundation of America is a grassroots organization dedicated to the protection of private property rights in all the fullness guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution. Private property rights are fundamental human rights, and are not mere poor relations of the other fundamental rights such as freedom of religion and freedom of speech.

Perhaps you will get an idea in this brief talk of how, by and large, today's over-baked zoning protects people and interest groups who need no government help but makes life harder, sometimes very difficult, for the little guy who should have government as his champion.

Question 1. How many of you live in a dwelling that you feel meets the zoning requirements of applicable jurisdictions?
Question 2. How many of you do the following at your dwelling or have any of the following conditions?
(Please keep your hands up as each additional item is ticked off.)
  a. Tutor or give piano lessons
  b. Make crafts for sale; refinish, cane or upholster furniture
  c. Have a home-based business making a small project, such as baking or cake decorating, dressmaking
  d. Have a home-based service such as auto or small engine repair
  e. Produce major goods from a home base, as in carpentry or logging
  f. Own a pickup truck which is parked outdoors
  g. Do visible hobbies outdoors such as building a boat
  h. Have an unlicensed car either for antique value or for spare parts
  i. Have peeling paint on your house or an unmown lawn
  j. Have a mobile home
  k. Have a house that is more than 50 years old
  l. Attend worship in a beautiful, old church building
  m. Own a swamp
  n. Own a property that someone else may consider scenic
All of these are common areas of either prohibition or costly government supervision under the zoning laws that are being written lately. Violations can be extremely costly, in legal fees and fines, even to the level of bankruptcy, and can put small businesses out of commission.

Zoning can be relatively innocuous, as it was in College Point, the section of New York City where I grew up after World War II. But, increasingly, as you can see from the previous list of good things which are now illegal or sources of costly supervision, zoning denies people their ability to live in freedom, to try to improve life for themselves and their family and to try to enjoy life.

Zoning is no joke. It usually pans out at the local level and makes life hard for farmers; rural homeowners who do things for themselves; small business; all sorts of people who do more than use their home for a bedroom and place of quiet, indoor family solace in the space left between work place, school and vacation; and poor people. (That is, people defined as poor, by today's acceptance codes.)

The press picks up the incidences of problems when they blow up to the points of lawsuits, political confrontations and arrests, and certainly the press finds itself covering citizens who organize local civic groups to prevent zoning from being implemented and to repeal zoning.

But unlike the coverage when, say, free speech is involved, the press doesn't pick up on the issue of a basic right, one that protects people's family lives and helps them to prosper, one that gives them the freedom to advance themselves. Namely, their private property rights.

Nor does the press pick up on the general effect of what is happening, except that it is "zoning."

Neither the reporters nor those who write editorials take the time to study proposed zoning codes or offenses to report with a knowledge of the myriad details, the stumbling blocks to owners, such as the examples I previously mentioned.

Furthermore, the press, even the editorial section, avoids the topic of how the nit-picking bureaucracy and interest groups eat up freedom and even, many times, drive a family to destitution. I have never, for instance, read a report in a mainline newspaper that gives the impression which people from former Iron Curtain countries, Poland, Latvia, Bavaria, explicitly have conveyed to me as their experience here — a heartbreaking reintroduction to what they left behind.

A paramount aspect of zoning which is missing from press perusal is how zoning comes about. When the press treats of zoning, it is as though the zoning popped out of a hat.

But zoning rarely originates locally. It comes from professionals who are in place because of a top-down lobbying effort. Zoning results from well-funded studies, often involving money from higher levels of government, and certain foundations active in promoting zoning. Preservation groups, such as the "1,000 Friends" of this or that state, often nationally coordinated and with access to national funding, are a big factor in the passage of state-level growth management plans. Environmental groups, as well, gather backup for zoning before it pops up at a state, regional, or local level.

Two of the biggest pass-down vehicles of forcing or influencing local town or county zoning are state-legislated compulsory "growth management," like that with which Oregon was first, and the federal Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972. Features of growth management, like minimum rural lot sizes of 8, 40 or 80 acres, serve to gradually force poorer people off the land, gentrifying the countryside. After 25 years, the Coastal Zone program is only now panning out at the local level. It may come in via a state environmental department or, as in New York, through the state department. With lots of money, professionals, and the capacity to come back repeatedly to any one municipality, the bureaucrats whose career it is to get localities to implement these plans are quite successful.

Another increasingly used category of zoning is that directly from a higher level, the legislatively established state commission which has jurisdiction over a supposedly environmentally sensitive region, such as the Adirondacks, where I live, the Long Island Pine Barrens or the New Jersey Pinelands. These laws are always compulsory. They supersede local zoning but at the same time may, like state growth management, get local towns to make zoning to suit the higher entity.

The federal government establishes interstate zoning agencies, sometimes in cooperation with governors. Like those environmental zoning commissions I just mentioned, these are vehemently opposed by the local property owners, but the local population is often too small to have much impact on the legislative body, namely Congress, in this case. Examples are the interstate Tahoe Regional Planning Agency and the Columbia River Gorge Commission.

I think that there is an important relationship between the significant aspects of zoning overlooked by the press, the principle of private property rights as a constitutionally protected fundamental human right, the fact that today's zoning increasingly hurts the little guy who needs freedom to advance himself and his family, and the fact that zoning comes down from the unaffected professional elite and those on high rather than being essentially generated by local government. The connection is that zoning is a tool of power and of protection of people who have financial and consumptive interests in private property, and who stand to gain by the collapse of the little guy who owns land the bigger interests wish to control. The irony should not be lost on you at this point that the press, with its tradition of impassioned defense of the defenseless, has seldom, in the case of zoning, come to the defense of those whose supposed protector, government, is turned against them.

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