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Zoning laws are pretty blasé. After all, who cares about local
property regulations? If it qualifies as tyranny, it’s a pretty mild
sort. No big deal. Tyranny has to be the “industrial strength” variety
before folks’ blood starts boiling and their dander gets up.
In some ways it’s very similar to disease. Epidemics and viral
outbreaks are a lot more exciting than common maladies; this is why
getting people excited about zoning is like getting doctors excited
about treating diarrhea. However, just because a zoning official is a
small timer in terms of national importance doesn’t mean he’s not a big
timer in terms of being a creep.
WorldNetDaily reporter Jon Dougherty acquaints us with such creeps in
his Aug. 19, 1999, news exclusive, “Another Waco brewing in
As the story goes, Mike and Christine Stitt bought some land on a
rinky-dink island off the northeast coast of Michigan in 1995. Wanting
to raise their progeny in the “old fashioned way,” the Stitts planned on
starting a little farm, complete with barn, a few crops and some
However, the local bureaucrats apparently had more affection for the
American Fascist than the American Gothic, because the township zoning
officials told the Stitts to can their plans. The local poobahs told
the Stitts that their farm violated zoning ordinances which prohibited
agriculture on “residential-zoned” property and that, if they didn’t
dismantle their partially built barn, yank up their crops and kick out
the livestock, they would face eviction and fines.
It doesn’t take a keen nose to figure out that such an edict stinks
far worse than the farm animals living in the Stitts’ uncompleted barn.
The Stitts bought the land with one purpose in mind, and then some group
of town mandarins elbow in and put the kibosh on their dream.
Not that this is new or surprising. “Local zoning officials,” writes
investigative reporter James Bovard, “are ruling and ruining the lives
of average citizens. Modern zoning laws presume that no citizen has a
right to control his own land — and that every citizen has a right to
control his neighbor’s land.” Proving that the Stitts are not alone,
Bovard provides many examples of absurd zoning in his two books, “Lost
Rights” and “Shakedown: How the Government Screws You From A to Z.”
As Bovard notes, many zoning laws have to do with forcing a
particular “look” on homeowners. Phoenix, Ariz., for instance, requires
that all new homes be built with Spanish tile roofs. Apparently in an
effort to be egalitarian and non-ageist, Coral Gables, Fla., has a
similar requirement: all backyard kiddy playhouses are also to be fitted
with the same expensive style of roof. No fancy roof and, apparently,
the kids have to play in the poison oak instead.
Coral Gables residents also have to get approval from the town elders
to paint the interior of their homes by applying for a $35 permit. Local
building inspectors, the “Paint Gestapo,” actually patrol the area,
scouting for painting trucks, hoping to nab black-market paperhangers
In order to protect city-dwellers from the curse of monotony, some
zoning laws forbid homeowners from painting their houses with colors
similar to their neighbors’ houses. According to the Chicago Tribune,
Carol Stream, Ill., has a seven-page ordinance detailing roof-pitches
and styles, window shapes and numbers and the type of building materials
used in construction — all to keep houses looking different.
And you better keep that house looking good, too. In Virginia,
Alexandria’s Office of Code Enforcement actually sent notices to some 22
homeowners warning them to fix the chipped paint on their windowsills
and doorframes — or have their properties condemned.
Neither do we want untidy streets and driveways. In one Illinois
town, pickup trucks were banned from parking on the street or in private
driveways, and many are the souls that have found out about local
abatement laws which prevent a person from parking inoperable autos on
his own property. In Laguna Beach, Calif., one man was actually
sentenced to six months jail because of some old jalopies parked in his
driveway. In his case, the neighbors complained about sinking property
values — who knew a ’68 Chevy could be a drain on the economy?
All of these examples demonstrate something key about human nature:
it stinks. Town officials want to exercise ownership on other folks’
property without having to shell out the bucks to do so. This is the
problem: zoning is essentially the desire of one group of people to
control the property of another without having to pay for the
privilege. If we were honest, we’d call this theft; the zoners are
stealing the property of the zonees — right out from under their noses.
The Stitts bought a hunk of land. It’s theirs. They own it. And I
shouldn’t have to quote a dozen philosophers, political theorists and
economists to establish that if you own a piece of property, it’s yours
to do with as you please — that’s what ownership is. By the local
jacks-in-office butting in and telling the Stitts what they can or
cannot do with their property, they are basically asserting the right of
ownership — even though their names aren’t on the deed.
If I went across the street and told my neighbor he had to pull up
his tulips and get rid of his cat or face eviction, and then came back
with my gun to enforce my demands, I’d be arrested and tossed in the
county clink. Why not town councils and red-tapists for enforcing
zoning laws? The only difference is that a bunch of folks, rather than
just one, agreed to force their will on a neighbor. That doesn’t make
it right; that just makes it collusion, and since when is a gang bang
preferable to a one-on-one mugging?
If people enjoy clean streets and well-painted, diversely pigmented
abodes with few or no goats on the front lawn, they should work out
voluntary agreements with each other to achieve their ends. They should
not use the coercive power of the government to force their demands on
their fellows. That’s just not neighborly.
Joel Miller is the Assistant Editor