Grass Roots Efforts to Impose Socialism

At first, I thought this was an interesting article in the battle of urban planners against suburban "sprawl."  Here is the voice of the often silent majority, who like suburbs and don't want a bunch of high-density mini-Manhattans :

Jones and his neighbors moved to Laveen's low-scale subdivisions in
hopes of finding a suburban life near the heart of the Valley, where
they could enjoy large, affordable homes a few miles southwest of
downtown Phoenix.

"We had the opportunity to buy a brand-new home we could afford, and
we had a view of downtown," Pacey says. "The potential to make this as
wonderful as other areas of Phoenix is huge."

The story has the typical highly-connected former politician turned developer (is there another kind?) using his unique access to his old zoning cronies to manipulate regulation for personal profit:

Then Paul Johnson, a former Phoenix mayor, proposed taking a mostly
vacant 27-acre parcel a few blocks east of Jones' home and building 517
apartments and townhouses on it.

The property was zoned for one house to the acre. It abuts a
two-lane road where the speed limit, when two nearby schools are in
session, is 15 mph. And the nearby intersection of 27th and Southern
avenues, which provides access to downtown Phoenix, is still controlled
by stop signs.

Schools in the neighborhood already were overcrowded, and residents
were concerned about the police's ability to keep up with calls for
service. Where were all these new people going to go?

"They've done so much building in Laveen that the infrastructure has
not kept up," says Jones, an auditor who had no previous involvement in
civic affairs.

Despite a resident outcry and opposition from Michael Nowakowski,
the councilman who had just been elected to represent the district, the
council approved the rezoning 7-1 on Dec. 19.

Johnson gets extra bonus points as the urban-chic villain, expressing the superiority of sitting in cafes to, say, having a back yard.

As a former mayor, Paul Johnson is familiar with residents' arguments against high-density developments.

"They feel that any time you have additional density, that it means
a lower quality," he says one morning over coffee at Biltmore Fashion
Park. "The counter to that is this."

Johnson gestures across Camelback Road to the high-rise apartments and townhomes near 24th Street.

"I look out across the street, and there's a lot of density there,"
he says. "But I'm also sitting in a pretty nice cafe. I have a nice
place to sit. And there's a lot of other people here who think it's a
nice place."

But it turns out that there are no good guys in this story, as is often the case for your poor libertarian correspondent.  Because, the opponents of such development are turning to the ballot box, converting property decisions from individual ones made by the property owner to group decisions made on election day.  What can be built on this particular property may well be decided at the ballot box, just as I discussed another parcel of land whose fate will be decided not by its owner, but at town elections in November.

Sometimes, the reaction to government control is a bid for de-regulation.  But more often, it merely results in a scrap for power, as parties ignore the question of whether the government power should exist at all, and instead fight over who gets to wield it.

For the most part, it has been up to city councils to decide how
much density one neighborhood can tolerate. If Jones is successful,
they could lose some of that power.

"It speaks to the age-old dilemma of representative democracy versus
direct democracy," said Paul Lewis, an assistant professor of political
science at ASU. "There's always an issue with land use because what
might be in the overall interest of the city might still be seen as a
detriment to its immediate neighborhood."

This is all very depressing.  No mention of any age-old question between individual rights and government power.  For these guys, the "city" and the "neighborhood" are somehow real entities with more rights than actual people. 

For centuries we have had a perfectly serviceable approach for determining who gets to decide what gets built on a piece of land:  ownership.  If one wanted to control a property, she/he bought it.  But the desire to control property without really owning it is a strong one, and a driving force for much of government regulation.


  1. John Moore:

    Zoning is an area I'm a bit conflicted on.

    The idea that "I can do with my property as I want" conflicts with the concept of externalities.

    Can you test high explosives in your back yard?

    How about maintaining fire hazards?

    How about selling pornography (the issue being the sort of people it would bring to the neighborhood, not the ethics of pornography)?

    How about a building that represents a safety hazard to yourself?

    How about a building that represents a safety hazard to your neighbor?

    How about blocking someone's view?

    How about having rusting cars in your front yard?

    What if I erect a ham radio antenna (I'm NJ7E, btw).

    I raise these examples to show that it is a slope - there isn't a strong absolute that I can see. In Europe, you can find many areas where no zoning exists. I lived in one in Suresnes, France for a while. Housing, shops, factories all mixed together.


    The trend, starting in the '70s, to treat one's home as the major investment asset mad this much worse. Now, if I paint my house an ugly color, it affects the resale value of neighboring houses - a more inmportant issue than in the psat.

    One response to this was a very onerous "free market" approach - Home Owner's Associations. These groups make zoning seem like a minor restriction on your freedom. Of course, you enter them "voluntarily." After all, it's just a contract tied to the property. On the other hand, try to find a new home in a Phoenix area development that allows me to put up a ham antenna. Not a chance!

    Anyway, back to zoning.... obviously assetization of one's homes made the push for zoning even stronger.

    Likewise, the fading of American indiviualism made it easier to do.

    And, of course, there's always corruption in the process - worsened in effect as government is goven more power.

  2. Dave:

    Why, if you live in a desert, would you want or expect a "back yard"? Seems more trouble than it's worth (and I'm not talking here about the environmental effects of having a yard in a dessicated environment, as I care not a whit about either the environment or environmentalists).

  3. John Dewey:

    Dave, have you spent any time in the desert around Phoenix? Have you ever sat on a backyard patio surrounded by saguaro, ocotillo, paloverde, and cholla? Did you ever sit quietly at dawn or dusk and observe the desert fauna attracted to the pond built in such a backyard? I've seen rabbits, coyotes, bobcats, mice, ground squirrels, snakes, lizards, iguanas, a dozen or more varieties of birds, colorful butterflies, and much more in the backyards of homes I've rented.

    Check out some of these Arizona desert landscapes and tell me why desert residents woldn't want these:

  4. curtis:

    "For centuries we have had a perfectly serviceable approach for determining who gets to decide what gets built on a piece of land: ownership. If one wanted to control a property, she/he bought it." I find this statement a poor conclusion, since zoning rules have existed since the birth of our country. Plenty of cities in the 19th century had some sort of zoning, so it is hard to argue that simple ownership is the only determinate of what gets built on a piece of land. This posting on the Coyote blog seems a bit simplistic to me, but nonetheless brings up an interesting topic which is sure to interest many.

  5. dearieme:

    Where I live, your neighbour can muck up land drainage and turn your patch into a bog. Suing afterwards is slim consolation, particularly if the culprit is a corporation which can outspend you at law, or, indeed, go bust and leave you to whistle for compensation.

  6. ElamBend:

    Zoning laws are barely a century old (they really gained steam in the 19-teens).

    I think you're being a bit too hard on the ballot-boxers in this instance, they thought they already had control through their elected city-council, only to find out that someone better connected had more leverage. In their eyes, the referendum is simply a proxy to regain the 'right' of control they thought already existed through the city council.

    AS for high-density development. I personally love living in high-density areas (hence I'm in downtown Chicago), what I never understood about many high-density proponents (and new urbanist) is their belief that such projects could be just parachuted into an area with no consideration of the surroundings. High-density areas work when they grow and exist organically. That was one of the lessons of Jane Jacobs. A true walk-up cafe needs a lot of foot traffic, something you won't get in 27-acre high density development plopped down into a suburban setting.

  7. Sol:

    It seems like half the local stories in our newspaper are about how great it would be if our fair city had a higher density, and the other half are about large residential projects (mostly downtown apartments) being denied zoning variances to start construction despite approval from the city planning commission.

  8. Miklos Hollender:

    "For centuries we have had a perfectly serviceable approach for determining who gets to decide what gets built on a piece of land: ownership."

    Not quite. You could complain and win in court if a neighbour built something on his land that seriously disturbs you in a justifiable way.

  9. John Dewey:

    Zoning laws only arose in the early 20th century for a simple reason - the laws were not needed before the use of motor vehicles.

    Heavy industry has always been dependent on freight transportation. When trains and ships provided freight transport, heavy obnoxious industries were concentrated around wharves and railhead terminals. Those who desired relief from urban industry simply used carriages or streetcars to commute from the suburbs.

    Motorized trucking changed the economics for heavy industry. Businesses could forego the expensive industrial sectors close to wharves and train stations. Nuisance laws had been sufficient to segregate obnoxious industry from residences - to handle the few exceptions to industrial concentration. But opportunities made possible by the motorized freight truck quickly overwhelmed the ability of nuisance laws to prevent the intrusion of noise and pollution in residential sectors.

    IMO, zoning is a much more efficient method for separating residences from industrial noise and pollution than would be the uncertainty and cost of lawsuits. I think businesses prefer to know that use for land they purchase or lease are not likely to be challenged in court.

    Libertarians may argue that individual rights trump all community planning - but I don't agree in the case of zoning laws. Of course, planners have gone too far, and either courts or legislators must protect and balance rights of all parties.