Thursday, May 28, 2009

Zoning is Zoning

neoHouston reports on a recent forum on form-based codes presented by Houston Tomorrow. Unlike conventional "Euclidian" zoning, which dictates what types of activities may occur on a parcel of land, form-based codes focus more on building "typology"--that is, the form of the building.

Daniel Parolek, one of the presenters, outlined the five essential components of a form-based code:
  1. The Regulating Plan
  2. Building Form Standards
  3. Public / Civic Space Standards
  4. Thoroughfare Standards
  5. Administration Standards
Of these, the regulating plan is the most important, as it establishes the overall development plan for the community:

In developed areas it classifies neighborhoods based on the level of infrastructure and prevailing building type, and in undeveloped areas it proposes future infrastructure investments and appropriate building types based on that infrastructure pattern, (in other words, bigger buildings go where the bigger roads are).

On administration standards, neoHouston writes:

In recognition of one of the biggest failures of conventional zoning, form-based zoning is built with a strong focus on simple, fast administrative processes. People whose plans comply with the ordinance should experience very fast, automatic approval.

While the presenters, and neoHouston, think that there is a significant difference between conventional zoning and form-based codes, they are simply wrong.

No matter what adjectives you put before "zoning", the essence remains the same--control of property is removed from the rightful owner and vested in government officials. The property owner cannot use his property as a matter of right, but only with the permission of politicians and bureaucrats. No matter how they try to dress it up or what they call it, zoning is zoning. And zoning is a violation of property rights--the right to property is the right of use and disposal. Under zoning, no matter its variation, control of property use is removed from the owner.

Consider what happens to those who plans do not comply with the ordinance. They are prohibited from using their property as they choose. Their plans are destroyed, and they are forced to abide by the dictates of the central planners. If they refuse to do so, they become criminals.

The false alternative between conventional zoning and form-based zoning is no different than the alternative between arsenic and cyanide. To the property owner, the end result is the same--he may only use his property as others mandate.

Advocates of form-based zoning are trying to put lipstick on a pig. The fact that they frequently drop the word "zoning" and use "code" instead is one clue to their motivation. Like the advocates of "Houston-style zoning" in the 1990s, they believe that changing the name of their proposal changes its essence and its meaning. But verbal gymnastics do not change the principles that underlie their proposal.

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