City Zoning--An Economic Wasteland
NOVEMBER 01, 1963 by DONALD TERRY
Mr. Terry is a high school economics teacher and debate coach and served on the City Council of Louisville,
Demonstrations and heated discussions of burning issues often conceal facts and principles that would seem reasonably clear from the quiet comfort of one’s armchair. The recent outbreaks of violence over human rights or civil rights make it hard to see that the real issue of the minority versus the majority boils down to the question: What are the rights of the individual which the government ought never to invade but should defend against violation by any other individual or group? In other words, what is the proper role of government in a free society?
This is no easy question, of course; but one way to approach it is to ask yourself and your friends, "Would you favor a law specifying how each of us is to spend or invest the money in his pay envelope?" The overwhelming response, I suspect, would be a vehement "No!" Yet, time and again, we have acted collectively to violate the rights to private property implicit in the foregoing question and answer. This inconsistency reflects our failure to understand the net effect of the laws we promote or permit.
My rude awakening on this matter came when we Councilmen of Louisville, Ohio, were asked to review a zoning case. I had always assumed, along with most others of the community, that zoning was the only way to protect the "right" of an individual to live in an area of the type he desired. But now I was jolted by a question about the effect of zoning on property rights.
I began to see that zoning acts as a law specifying how private property, in the form of real estate, may be used by its owners. The ultimate effect, I concluded, is a majority decision on how you and I may use our property—hardly consistent with a viewpoint stressing human liberty. Zoning, if we favor it, amounts to an insistence on our part that someone else protect and subsidize our privacy and our likes and dislikes.
For example, if your neighbor has a use for his property to which you object, only two alternatives are open to you: (1) you may, in the true spirit of the free market, bid for and buy the property, or (2) you can, by collective action, call out the police force to deny your neighbor his choice and enforce yours instead. Which of these is consistent with liberty and freedom?
This led me into further study of the history and background of the private property concept. Gottfried Dietze, in his book In Defense of Property (Chicago: Regnery, 1963) says "a prerequisite for incentive and human progress—is property [which] guarantees peace among individuals." Without guarantees of property, some use of the gun is inevitable. John Locke made it clear in his Second Treatise of Government that property enjoys protection as a natural right. Hume, the staunch Scottish proponent of limited government, stated that any property owned and improved by the individual must be secured to him. As Dietze points out, "The Declaration of Independence is to a great extent a document in defense of property." John Adams, in his Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America stressed the need for protecting each man’s right to use his property as he saw fit. Dietze concludes that no discrimination against the right of property use can be justified, if the objective is compatibility with freedom. Can we deny the need to return to the complete protection of property, including the right of the owner to make the use he desires of it?
Examples of Waste
With this background, I began to reflect on the case before the Council. It involved a large building designed as a theater on a half-acre tract. This business property stood economically wasted for years because zoning laws prohibited any use except as a theater or residence, thus prohibiting the owner from introducing light industry. This property was not only well suited to such use but adjoined a railroad track and was on the boundary of a light industrial and commercial zone. True, the owner had made a mistake in locating a theater there. But why perpetuate, by law, such an economic waste of resources as well as a restriction on human liberty? As I pondered the case, there came to mind two reasons why government should not decide land use:
(1) Zoning denies freedom of choice by individuals and businesses to use their property to pursue their ultimate economic well-being; (2) thus, zoning collectively creates an unjustified economic wasteland that private owners wish to avoid. The following examples may help to clarify the fact that zoning denies freedom of choice:
First, there came before the Louisville City Council a businessman who could not erect a sign of certain height within a certain distance from the sidewalk. Why not build it back where zoning laws call for it? Large trees would obscure it, thus defeating its purpose.
The second case was that of a homeowner who developed a basement workshop where he did small repair jobs. Zoning laws denied his right to continue to pursue his economic goal.
The third example, recently related to me by a friend from another community, concerned a vacated dance studio. Neighborhood opposition, plus zoning laws, long frustrated the owner’s efforts to sell. Finally, in spite of the opposition, he was given permission to sell it for use as a private kindergarten. The result has been the improving of the appearance of the property so it is no longer an eyesore. Indeed, property values have since risen throughout the neighborhood.
These cases illustrate how the right of property usage can be and is denied in many cases to individuals, businesses, and industries throughout this "land of the free." The result is a vast economic wasteland as owners are denied for years the economic use of their buildings and land. How can we progress if we deny owners the freedom to properly allocate resources?
The counter argument of the planner is that zoning is the only way to protect residential areas from invasion by industry. The answer is threefold, but simple. First, if homes are the proper allocation or usage of that land, then industry will not desire it. And remember, too, much of zoning is speculative regarding possible future use of areas. But what "planner" can know the future? Why not let the free market determine use? Second, we have ample evidence that, as manufacturing moves into an area, prices are bid upward; thus, the original owners can profit and still permit the best allocation of the land.
Most of us agree that no man should be forced to use his resources if he does not choose to use them. By the same reasoning, no collective group should use the gun of the policeman to force anyone to waste his resources or to subsidize someone else’s desires. To deny the right of any individual to use his own property according to his own choice is to jeopardize the freedom of everyone.
Too Late to be Free
Recently I wrote to the president of a large well-known university inviting him to join a group of college presidents in making known the arguments against the ever-growing federal subsidies of education. He replied that although he was in full agreement with our position that the subsidies are not in the long-range best interests of the colleges of the country, his own university was now so dependent upon funds from Washington that he could not exercise his rights as a citizen on this issue without jeopardizing the university he served.
DR. JOHN A. HOWARD, President of