Thursday, July 31, 2008

What’s in a Name?

Zoning advocates routinely try to hide their intentions through euphemisms. In the 1990’s they created “Houston-style zoning” and “neighborhood zoning”. But regardless of the adjectives or nouns used by zoning advocates, zoning is still zoning.

At best, such tactics are incredibly naïve. At worst, they are blatant intellectual dishonesty. The implication is that if they don’t call it zoning, then it isn’t zoning. Just as putting lipstick on a pig doesn’t make it attractive, putting a different label on land use restrictions won’t change its nature.

Certainly, some land use restrictions are less egregious than others. Some forms of zoning may be so as well. But the underlying principle is the same—government may violate the property rights of its citizens. And that principle must be rejected in any form it is made manifest.

To accept a principle, no matter how minor or small a particular application may seem, is to surrender the principle completely. If a bank conceded to a robber than he could steal some of their money, they are only left to quibble over the precise amount.

Political power is political power. To grant politicians control over our property—no matter how small that control may initially be—is to grant them control over our property. We can then only quibble over the extent of that control.

In the 1990’s zoning advocates claimed that Houston would avoid the corruption, high housing costs, political favoritism, and other problems associated with zoning in other cities. They tried to pretend that no principles underlie zoning. Houston, they repeatedly told us, is different.

They will likely repeat that mantra. They will likely try to cast their newest version of zoning in a new light. They may call it “incentive zoning”, or “performance zoning”, or “form-based zoning”, but it is still government control over the use of property. It is still a violation of the property rights of the citizens. Putting a new dress on zoning won’t change that fact.

Somehow, they will have us believe, Houston will be immune to the basic laws of supply and demand. We will be able to remove land from the market place (for particular uses) yet housing, rents, and the cost of doing business will not increase.

Somehow, they will have us believe, politicians in Houston will avoid the corruption and intrigue that accompany zoning in other cities. We will grant to them immense power over our property—and hence our lives—and they (including future politicians) will not abuse that power.

Few Houstonians would entrust strangers with control over their bank account, investments, or retirement plans. Yet zoning entrusts strangers with control over land use, and hence, everyone’s property.

When Houston was debating its first preservation ordinance in 1995, I spoke to City Council in opposition. I pointed out that the 90-day moratorium on demolishing certain structures that they were considering could be easily extended to 120 days, 360 days, or more at some future point.

Councilman John Kelley irresponsibly replied that he could not predict what future Councils would do, thereby implying that it was of no concern to him. The ultimate consequences of that ordinance did not matter to him, largely because he was incapable of projecting those consequences. He did not see a principle involved in the issue.

Preservationists have since pressed to extend the moratorium and/ or strengthen the ordinance. They established the principle in 1995, and since then it has simply been a matter of expanding its application. The same holds true of zoning, which is why zoning ordinances gradually grow in size, scope, and complexity.

At the time, then-Mayor Bob Lanier said that the ordinance was a fair compromise. Quite the contrary. No compromise between property rights and their violation is fair. Such compromises concede the principle that violating property rights is acceptable.

A rose by any other name is still a rose. And so is zoning.

© J. Brian Phillips 2008

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