In the Zone

You’re a businessman. You see a need for low-cost apartments. A property owner is happy to sell you the plot on which the complex may be built. The local senior housing center has a long waiting list, so your units would clearly be snapped up just as soon as available.

Everything’s a go, except . . . your project is against the law. A zoning law. Therefore, you are out of luck, as are the persons who would rent from you.

Such bans don’t proliferate in a vacuum, of course. Enforcement of zoning laws is often ardently demanded by the residents of the neighborhoods in which developers wish to build.

That’s what happened a few years back in Darien, Connecticut, where townsfolk were up in arms over a proposal to build condos for seniors. Residents felt entitled to forcibly prevent others from moving in. (It is dangerous to play with fire, though. Zoning laws can be used against insiders as well as outsiders. Some Darrien dwellers recently learned, for example, that the eaves of their homes were “too big” for regulators’ tastes.)

Another zone-ified town mentioned in John Ross’s review of Lisa Prevost’s new book Snob Zones: Fear, Prejudice, and Real Estate is Ossipee, New Hampshire, where workers sometimes live in tents to save on rent. The zoning code prohibits the building of new apartment buildings.

Observes Prevost: “The market is hungry for apartments, condominiums, and small homes, if only zoning restrictions would get out of the way.”

Of course, “the market” is simply shorthand for the needs of lots of people, and the freedom to meet those needs.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

6 Comments so far ↓

  1. May
    10
    8:15
    AM
    Brian C

    I usually agree with you but not this time. I think zoning laws generally make a lot of sense. There are a million places you can legally build an apartment building. I lived in apartments much of my life, so I know. But putting one up in a neighborhood of single-family homes often isn’t fair to the people living there. It’s not a big problem.

  2. May
    10
    9:43
    AM
    James

    I’m with Brian C.

    Bashing silly zoning laws and HOA restrictions is, for many liberty-lovers, a favorite pastime. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that these are the epitome of subsidiarity and local self-government.

    Property rights? Individual rights? Sure, all well and good. My right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins? Yeah, okay. But let’s not ignore the externalities of my fist-swinging.

    Should I be able to open, say, a car stereo shop next to your house? A 24-hour freight dock? A pig farm? A gun range? A strip club?

    Fist-swinging regulations are not always the work of busybodies. Sometimes they’re necessitated by excessive fist-swingers.

  3. May
    10
    5:47
    PM
    Jay

    I agree with James & Brain C. I am a real estate broker, and (as one example of no enforcement of zoning laws) in a town near where I live- there is ON THE SAME STREET- a school; (OK); single family homes (also OK) AND A SCRAP YEARD, where (amongst other things) there was a car crushing machine ( I forget what they are called, but are quite large and can turn a car into a piece of metal not much larger then an inflated basketball).

    Zoning laws exist to preserve the character of an area, not for the owners to necessarily sell to a developer. By the way, as an example of developers getting what they wanted, in a town in Ohio, there was a small strip center–with mom and pop businesses; all doing fairly well; all having a few locals as employees. A developer thought it woudl eb great for condos, so he bought the complex and paid the owners to relocate. (And got the zoning changed, from retail to apartments/multi family). And then did nothing. And there stands an empty strip center. (A friend was one of the owners of a business there).

    Develoeprs are not always right in what they want to build, and where.

  4. May
    10
    7:38
    PM
    Ed

    The free market COULD solve the problems raised above via nuisance/noise insurance.

  5. May
    12
    7:42
    AM
    Tree Dee

    ……and then of course, you couldn’t build a DOLL HOUSE there, because it infringes on the habitat of the one-eyed, no-nosed ruby-red flip-dibble……

  6. May
    12
    8:23
    AM
    Drik

    Funny how zoning laws never seem to protect existing low income neighborhoods from seizure by the government to turn their property over to developers who promise higher tax-paying developement. They always work to prevent lowering of taxability, never to protect property owners from higher. Which is important to the porperty owner if a property owner has no interest in selling.

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