Should Neighbors Zone?

28 06 2011

Kenneth Stahl has published a paper arguing that zoning powers can and should be devolved to neighbors and neighborhoods. This would fly in the face of generations of municipal and county zoning, where quasi-judicial commissions or committees and legislative bodies direct zoning according to comprehensive plans. Zoning is a thorny issue because while seemingly picayune it more than almost anything else determines what a city or community will look like. The arguments against allowing neighbors to zone is that it undermines the ability of governments to plan comprehensively. Also, it potentially enables restrictive zoning that would keep out any unpopular business or industry–or group of people. Consider for example how likely any suburban community would be to zone a piece of property for high-density housing likely to bring in “city people” (code for minorities or poors).

On the other hand, when zoning power is concentrated in City Hall, those most likely to benefit from it are big players with high-level connections. For a good example, see the entire history of Chicago in the entire history of ever, or read this book by Gerald Suttles. Suttles has a libertarian bent and his critique of Chicago’s land use regime is that it has been captured by rent-seekers. And Suttles is largely correct: resident objections to major land use decisions are rarely heeded by the city’s power brokers who populate the Plan Commission and are often insufficient to move Aldermen who foresee years of filling their campaign coffers. Devolving power to the neighborhood level would take the knees out from under these mega developers who know they only need to get one person–the alderman–on their side to get their project through.

Still, the specter of restrictive covenants and homeowner loathing of anything but boutiques and grocery stores is an important one. If somebody buys a piece of property, the restrictions on what they can do with it cannot be left completely up to their neighbors, or be so burdened by design guidelines as to make development impossible.

Stahl’s paper is focused on the judicial theories that have precluded such neighborhood level zoning and advances a different theory based on alternative lines of cases to demonstrate that it is possible. The next step would be to try to model how such programs would actually work, and what kind of safeguards could be put in place to ensure that sub-local zoning wouldn’t become myopic or discriminatory.


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