Why Zoning Doesn’t Work

Zoning doesn’t work. None of the problems the politicians say we need zoning to prevent are seen in areas without zoning. It does, however, stifle the local economy and keep away potential businesses, it discriminates against lower-income people, it absorbs a lot of money from the system, and it prevents property owners from using their property as is their right. In this article, I examine these issues closely and present evidence showing that the zoning ordinance must be eliminated.

Most people accept zoning as a fact of life. They grudgingly accept the headaches and the red tape they’re subjected to as property owners because they believe government land use plans are vital to stopping problems such as garbage dumps being built in high-income areas, causing property values to drop, or toxic waste dumps next to elementary schools, causing health hazards, or any number of terrible things. But is this true? Would we really be in such danger without zoning laws to manage land use?

The answer is no, and you need only look at two real-world examples to become convinced of this: Houston, Texas, a major city which has never had a single zoning law yet has none of the problems the politicians say will inevitably happen without zoning, and Trimble County, Kentucky, a rural county which (like Lincoln County) is worried about development resulting from being near a major city. Every so often some politician or other tries to bring up a referendum to add a zoning ordinance, and every time they do they bring up all of the fear, uncertainty, and doubt and talk about what terrible things are going to happen if people refuse to pass the referendum. These politicians act quite surprised when the voters overwhelmingly reject it, sometimes more than three-to-one. Houston has rejected zoning three different times, and yet to this day it has no more land use problems than any other city of similar size. Trimble County in 2001 voted down a zoning referendum two-to-one. Another recent example, and one closer to home, was in 2003 when voters in Rutherford County voted against a zoning ordinance. As much as people who live in areas with zoning believe we can’t do without it, people who live in areas without zoning don’t want it. Because those voters know first-hand: zoning simply isn’t necessary.

No company is going to spend big dollar amounts on expensive property just to build a garbage dump. No company is going to do anything that lowers the value of their property because that affects the bottom line. When Trimble County voted on zoning in 2001, their Judge-Executive warned that any time now you’d get mobile homes next to $250,000 houses, just you watch. The voters didn’t buy it, because they knew no one would buy high-priced property just to put up a trailer.

On the other hand, no business is going to move into an area with draconian zoning laws when they can go elsewhere where they are given greater freedom from the high cost of compliance. They may not be wanting to do anything the zoning laws prohibit in the first place, and yet they still have to pay out money to prove to the government that they’re not doing it. According to the John Locke Foundation, only 16% of North Carolina business owners consider zoning to have a positive rate of return. That means the county is keeping away up to 84% of the potential businesses that could move to the county just by keeping the zoning ordinance intact.

This is the last thing we need at a time when the textile plants that employed so many are moving away.

So zoning doesn’t work, and what’s more, it’s actually doing more harm than good. But even worse, it’s an abrogation of our liberties. It stops homeowners from putting up outbuildings or even rain gutters which don’t affect any other property owners, it discriminates against lower-income residents, preventing them from being able to afford a home, and those who want to start their own business from their homes, and it eats up an enormous amount of time and taxpayer dollars. Some people in Lincoln County have been forced to sell the land their families have owned for generations because suddenly it has become zoned Commercial and they can’t afford the higher taxes.

Zoning is also a tool for the politically-connected to muscle their way into the lives of others and have their way. At the 4/21/03 Board of Commissioners meeting, the Lincoln County Commissioners denied a rezoning request to an applicant wishing to build a produce stand. Even though the planning board recommended the rezoning for approval 8-0, one politically-connected individual rose to speak against it, saying that some future owner of the property could sell alcohol and she didn’t want her kids to see it as they drove by. The Commissioners agreed and voted against the rezoning request 4-1, even though just the year before Lincoln County voters passed four separate referenda to allow businesses to sell alcohol in the county (before that, all sales of alcohol, even beer and wine, were prohibited). Zoning was used as a tool of force to act against the will of the people.

But probably the biggest cost of zoning is the bad neighbors it encourages. Normally, good neighbors go and talk civilly to each other when they have a problem. With zoning, it’s a completely different story. Sure, there are those who want to stop their neighbors from putting up “eyesores.” But who decides what is an eyesore? Elmhurst, IL considers a nativity scene an eyesore. York, PA will let you put up a nativity, but you have to get a temporary use permit. People become accustomed to being bad neighbors, to use the government to force their way in rather than trying to work it out peacefully first. This isn’t the result of people suddenly becoming evil or antagonistic; it’s merely the result of government. The tool of government is force, and that force is always backed up, sooner or later, by men with guns. If you think you need to go to the government to use the zoning laws against something your neighbor is doing, ask yourself if you would take a gun over to your neighbor’s house and force him at gunpoint to do your bidding. Because when you go to the government, that is exactly what you are doing. But it’s hidden from you in the process, so people end up becoming bad neighbors without even realizing what they’re doing.

This isn’t the exception, this isn’t the result of corruption, this isn’t the system gone awry, this is simply the way zoning and every other government program operates. And the politicians are always ready to assure you that it’s worth it, because of all of zoning’s perceived benefits, even though they can’t show that zoning has ever solved a single problem. Only the Libertarian Party knows different. Only the Libertarian party understands that you can’t make good neighbors by force. Only the Libertarian Party will fight for your property rights and end the problems caused by pretend solutions. I am the only candidate for County Commissioner who will demand nothing less than the repeal of the 268-page Zoning Ordinance and the restoration of the liberty we need to rebuild our local economy and live our lives in peace.

One thought on “Why Zoning Doesn’t Work

  1. I was previously a professional planner. All planners are taught the necessity of zoning in order to prevent noxious uses like a slaughterhouse being set up in a residential neighborhood.
    We’re also taught that the IDEAL urban fabric is that of the 19th century walkable dense neighborhood, like much of lower Manhattan, a built environment that occurred BEFORE zoning was ever introduced in NYC. Few planners make the connection here.
    Zoning produced the much hated homogeneity of suburbs.
    The narrative of many Urban Planning academics and theorists doesn’t hold up.

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