Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Pedestrian Zones

The assaults on property rights in Houston seem to be coming more frequently and more egregiously. In addition to airport zoning, the City recently introduced a proposal to create pedestrian zones in areas served by Metro’s light rail system.

The proposal, which has been in the works for two years, was announced in a Chronicle article on Sunday. Which means, for two years city officials have been plotting a strategy to violate property rights. The plan is now scheduled for public hearings and input.

The goal of the proposal is to create corridors that will allow home owners to walk to work, restaurants, and entertainment facilities and reduce traffic congestion. Ironically, that is what the Ashby High Rise developers sought to do and the City has gone to extremes to stop that project.

The article states: The neighborhood protection proposal would provide incentives for developers to voluntarily limit the heights of buildings on the edges of neighborhoods. Developers who complied would be exempt from the same regulations as those who met the city's building design standards.

In other words, developers who appease city officials would not be subjected to the same regulations as those who don’t. The city calls these “incentives”. I would call them bribes.

Developers will be given two choices: “voluntarily” limit the size of your project, or face more stringent regulations. Or to put it another way, “voluntarily” limit the size of your project, or the city will force you to do so. That is a choice between arsenic and cyanide.

Personally, I think pedestrian zones could be a great enhancement to many areas of the city. Last fall my wife treated me to a weekend in downtown Houston. We spent the weekend strolling the streets, eating in a variety of restaurants, listening to music, touring Minute Maid Park, and various other activities. It was fun to do so much without the need of a car.

But to impose pedestrian zones on developers and property owners will, as Ric Campo, the chief executive of Camden Property Trust, said, add to “costs and doesn't necessarily add value." More importantly, it violates property rights and imposes the city’s view of proper land use upon everyone. It dictates uses that the owners and users of the property may not want.

Freedom is seldom lost in one fell swoop. It is usually a gradual process. We are witnessing that in Houston, as group after group pushes some pet project on the rest of the city. Whether that group is the FAA, City Hall, or some neighborhood civic organization, each seeks to control the use of property that it doesn’t own. They may not be directly attacking our property rights when they do so, but they are attacking the principle of property rights.

And once we surrender that principle, we shouldn’t be surprised when they are knocking on our door.

© J. Brian Phillips 2008

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