Explore Freedom

Explore Freedom » Zoning: The New Tyranny

FFF Articles

Zoning: The New Tyranny


Modern zoning laws presume that no citizen has a right to control his own land, but that every citizen has a right to control his neighbor’s. While many people think zoning simply prevents sharply conflicting land uses, such as building a munitions plant next to an apartment complex, it has become far more invasive and arbitrary in recent years.

Increasingly you have to beg, bribe, and grovel to the nearest government bureaucrat for permission to do something with your property. Local zoning officials are increasingly petty dictators, ruling and ruining the lives of average citizens

Flossmoor, Illinois, in an act of legislative snobbery, banned pickup trucks from its streets–and even from private driveways. Coral Gables, Florida, charges residents $35 for a permit to paint rooms in their homes. Los Angeles prohibits freelance writers from working out of their homes in residential neighborhoods, fearing that the tap-tap-tap of their keyboards could devastate the quality of life in their neighborhoods.

Chicago issued a cease-and-desist order to a couple using two personal computers in their home to write software and magazine articles. Virtually all of the city’s 200,000 home-based businesses or offices are in violation of the city’s zoning code. Guilford, Connecticut, bans take-out windows at any restaurant or food-service place within town limits. (The town does permit take-out service from within restaurants.) Pasadena, California, banned residents from having weeds in their yards, a policy sometimes referred to as “crabgrass fascism.”

Eleven states currently allow zoning restrictions based on aesthetic criteria alone. In Salinas, California, bureaucrats have the power to “control the amount of variety in housing types and designs to avoid both monotony and visual chaos.”

Zoning routinely sacrifices some people’s freedom in order to inflate other people’s property values. In Takoma Park, Maryland (a suburb of Washington, D.C.), up to a thousand renters (8 percent of the city’s population) were evicted in 1988, primarily to boost the property values of a minority of homeowners. The county government launched a crackdown under a 65-year-old, archaic zoning law that prohibits sub-letting of apartments–an absurd rule for Takoma Park’s large Victorian homes.

Local governments have invoked zoning codes to require builders of apartment buildings to install whirlpool tubs and special electric ranges (in one case, identified by brand name).

Boston bureaucrats, invoking historic preservation regulations, banned a Catholic church from altering the lighting, windows, paint scheme, doors, finishes, and a painting of the Assumption of Mary inside the church. The bureaucrats decreed that the interior of the church “has major aesthetic importance independent of its religious symbolism”–and thus that they were justified in proclaiming themselves pope.

A 1991 zoning ordinance allows Camarillo, California, “to abate any problem that diminishes property values,” as The Los Angeles Times reported. Camarillo City Manager William Little explained: “It’s broad enough to cover virtually anything. But we are very judicious in what we go up against.” Little’s remark exemplifies how zoning to protect property values gives government officials almost unlimited power to restrict use–defeating the whole notion of property rights.

In Skanesteles, New York, the local government responded to one couple’s zoning violations by sending in sheriff’s deputies to drag the owner’s wife out of their home and jail her and raze their $350,000 lake-front home.

The Office of Code Enforcement in Alexandria, Virginia, sent certified letters to 22 homeowners in June 1993 threatening to condemn their properties unless they fixed chipping paint on their window sills and door frames.

Planning bureaucrats, like the pettifoggers that they are, consider their petty edicts to be above challenge. Newtown, Pennsylvania, requires citizens to pay a $10,000 nonrefundable fee in order to challenge the constitutionality of the local zoning ordinance.

In the 1926 case Euclid vs. City of Ambler–the case that opened the floodgates to zoning–Supreme Court Justice Willis Van Devanter wrote in his dissent: “The plain truth is that the true object of the ordinance in question is to place all property in a strait-jacket.” Truer words were never written.

This post was written by:

James Bovard is a policy adviser to The Future of Freedom Foundation. He is a USA Today columnist and has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New Republic, Reader’s Digest, Playboy, American Spectator, Investors Business Daily, and many other publications. He is the author of Public Policy Hooligan (2012); Attention Deficit Democracy (2006); The Bush Betrayal (2004); Terrorism and Tyranny (2003); Feeling Your Pain (2000); Freedom in Chains (1999); Shakedown (1995); Lost Rights (1994); The Fair Trade Fraud (1991); and The Farm Fiasco (1989). He was the 1995 co-recipient of the Thomas Szasz Award for Civil Liberties work, awarded by the Center for Independent Thought, and the recipient of the 1996 Freedom Fund Award from the Firearms Civil Rights Defense Fund of the National Rifle Association. His book Lost Rights received the Mencken Award as Book of the Year from the Free Press Association. His Terrorism and Tyranny won Laissez Faire Book’s Lysander Spooner award for the Best Book on Liberty in 2003. Read his blog. Send him email.