Soaring gas prices last summer caused many people to seek out ways to drive less and work closer to home. Unfortunately, seeking was about all they could do. Over the past century of land-use planning, governments have criminalized the construction of compact, walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods. The direct result of government wisdom was to make walking, biking, or even using public transport to work, school, and recreation simply impractical, if not un-economic (time has value too).
A recent Commentary columnist in the Richmond Times-Dispatch called for more restrictive zoning to "preserve" green space that she doesn't own. I think she has it backwards.
Sprawl can't be blamed on developers. Developers build because people need places to live and work. It was government that prevented the construction of any more compact, efficient grid-layout cityscapes such as people had built for generations (look at the housing in Richmond's Fan area, for instance). In 1900, a plot of a few acres could house hundreds of people. With the advent of zoning, however, city and county governments have steadily ratcheted density down. This doesn't mean that fewer people will move to a locality -- it just means that to house the same number of people, developers must seek out more and more spread-out virgin land to house them.
With zoning, the following is the normal progression: Zoning starts out by forcibly reducing the number of people allowed to occupy a given parcel of land by introducing minimum lot sizes and adding setback requirements. Then, some shrill minority [often newcomers who wish to slam the door behind them] whine about the precious farmland that is being chewed up as a result of the minimum lot sizes, and scream for passage of even larger lot size requirements. Eventually they get their wish and lot sizes increase to 25, 50, or 100 acres -- the point where only millionaires and government bureaucrats can afford them. This, of course, chews up MORE farmland, so the only 'logical' next step is to simply prohibit any growth of any kind. This progression is in play everywhere in the United States.
There were many reasons zoning codes became a popular import from the European national socialists of the 1890's. Rent-seeking politicians quickly realized that restricting land use could easily be used to exclude poor whites and racial minorities from middle and upper-class white areas; and indeed, some of the earliest zoning codes in the north included provisions for segregated neighborhoods. After the Supreme Court declared such laws un-enforceable in 1948, politicians simply replaced the objectionable provisions with new ones that accomplished essentially the same end using different language.
Other land-use restrictions have further eroded the human-to-land-surface ratio; chewing up build-able surface on every parcel. Setback requirements, for example, and minimum house sizes, such as the ones in Henrico, further restrict the housing stock and force developers to seek out virgin land in less-developed areas.
A look at Henrico County is instructive. Henrico was an early adopter of zoning law (1933) and an early adopter of exclusionary zoning: Henrico ordinances of 1960 outlawed building the small-lot, compact (600 square feet), and efficient entry-level housing such as that which was grandfathered-in around the Fairgrounds and Lakeside areas. This successfully kept blacks from buying into the county because housing prices quickly became inflated beyond the reach of many.
These days, sure, the county supposedly allows starter homes to be built -- but only where they're already standing. With blacks increasingly integrated into the social fabric of society, more and more black families can be found in Henrico neighborhoods. However, the exclusionary intent of zoning law is still there, with a changed focus. Now, it is simply classist rather than racist. The door has been slammed in the face of people with lesser means. You're simply out of luck if you want to split up a parcel into 1/8 acre lots with four or five $80,000, 600-square foot bungalows in one of the trendy West End neighborhoods. Try it and see how long it takes for zoning officials to laugh you out of the building.
Of course, a lot of small houses on compact lots makes bus service somewhat tenable. The 4,000 square foot McMansions with huge setbacks and large lots are auto-centric, and they are what politicians want because they generate more tax revenue.
It is clear that sprawl can be laid at the feet of rent-seeking politicians and the "NIMBY" activists who elect them and pressure them to slam the door on newcomers.
Anyone with common sense would understand that if you artificially restrict the supply of housing in one area, people will go elsewhere to buy their home. Leapfrog development happens when people who want homes can't find any, or find that the ones in the area that they really want have been artificially driven out of their price range. These people continue looking -- further and further away from their desired location.
Besides the severe cost to the environment in the form of sprawl, land-use regulation has relentlessly driven the cost of owning a home upwards. The covetous and loud interest groups that campaign so mightily at "evil developers" and who decry the lack of open or green space from the porch swing on their McMansion, are the people to thank for sprawl. Politicians reflect their constituents.
Zoning, once enacted, is always ratcheted ever tighter, like a noose.
In every community afflicted by the cancer of zoning, residents eventually discover they will have to go to the planning commission to do the most trifling things with their own property -- and the zoning board will see to it that a bunch of meaningless and useless conditions are placed upon them even then. "Oh, you want to put up a new mailbox? Go ahead -- but it has to be one of these approved $1,000 brands, and you have to paint it this color, and you can only put it in this spot here."
In a few decades, zoning will have created a sterile, stuffy, controlled, and boring environment. Our own children will have to leave, because they won't be allowed to build homes or work nearby.
Maybe it's time for change. Not a change in the form of moving control from rightward-tilting socialism to leftward-tilting socialism as in the recent presidential election. Rather, socialism should be dismantled altogether.
Zoning laws should be repealed as the abhorrent affronts to human liberty they are. Those who wish to control property belonging to others should do so the the honest way: buy it, or pay owners to insert restrictive covenants into their deeds. At the same time, the state should cease the practice of building free roads in virgin areas (think I-295 when it was built), and instead leave it to developers and new residents and businesses to pay for their own infrastucture in such areas. These two actions combined will help curtail the explosive sprawl we have today.
Marc Montoni is a network technician and a frequent columnist on the issue of individual liberty, Drug Prohibition, gun laws, and land-use regulation. He currently serves as the Secretary of the Libertarian Party of Virginia and publishes a commentary blog at FreeVirginia.blogspot.com.
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