A sheltered life in zoning

October 05, 1997|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE DE GRACE -- A religious person might well conclude that it was God, curious to see just how horrible so-called "civilized" human beings can become, who invented the zoning game.

Within the protecting walls of our democratic society, zoning offers the nearest thing to war that the laws permit. Zoning battles over what one may or may not do with one's property can be petty, but they can also be titanic, involving naked self-interest, money, political power, arrogance, vindictiveness -- and occasionally even humor.

Most of these struggles currently take place in the suburbs. This is because the suburbs, with a growing population and available land, demand development.

Because providing development can produce big profits, there is competition to do so.

And because rapid development destroys the illusion of neighborhood stability, it is fought at every step with great passion and energy by many of the very people whose presence makes it inevitable.

If there were no zoning laws, the development conflict would still exist, but it would be fought under economic rules alone. If the people in a subdivision didn't want the farm across the road to be turned into another subdivision, they could only prevent that from happening by buying the property themselves. That would be efficient, if not what all of us consider fair.

The enactment of zoning laws politicizes the economic process, and while this reduces efficiency and raises everyone's costs, it isn't necessarily all bad. It buys time for neighborhoods under pressure, and it gives those who would be adversely affected by development a chance to object to it formally.

Ersatz arts

Zoning attracts to the suburban battleground a host of unattractive camp-followers, including influence-peddling lawyers and consultant/practitioners of the ersatz arts of "planning."

Zoning also creates splendid new opportunities for politicians to engage in shameless posturing, and to extort contributions, legal and sometimes illegal, in exchange for their votes.

Harford County is now in the throes of a major zoning battle. Several hundred properties, totally about 9,000 acres, were proposed for re-classification under a comprehensive revision of the county's zoning map.

Predictably, the din has been deafening. But the spectacle has been enlightening and, in a limited way, even reassuring.

As is almost always the case in these conflicts, the developers and their minions made fools of themselves from the beginning. Although they not infrequently had logic on their side in the various skirmishes, their behavior in the public arena was generally so ludicrous they made it difficult to take seriously almost anything they said.

They persisted, for example, in referring to themselves as the "shelter" industry, as though they only wanted to build a few huts thatched with banana leaves instead of more malls, strip shopping centers, and preposterous tract mansions with four-car garages and sunken ballrooms. This drew hoots even from the most detached observers.

The shelter-creators then contemptuously labeled their opponents "no-growth" naives. And if a no-growth attitude prevailed, they suggested, the economy of the whole county would collapse forthwith, throwing thousands out of work and into bread-lines. They bought big ads in the local newspapers to push their views, and tried to flood public hearings with their own employees.

The ranks of the rezoning opponents, in Harford as in every county where these battles rage, naturally include a few crackpots. But here, they had little impact on the recent debate, which was conducted by and large in a reasonable, if emotional, tone.

There is some debate about the exact numbers, but it's clear that Harford County has already approved zoning for something like 25,000 new residences which have not yet been built. At recent rates of growth, that should last until 2015 or so. The so-called no-growth crowd raised no objection to that.

On the other hand, there were some legitimate hardship cases -- which the shelter consortium was quick to emphasize. A family with a house by the side of a recently-widened and heavily-used main road, for example, argued that unless they could upzone their property for commercial use it was unsalable and virtually valueless. It was certainly hard to see otherwise.

Naturally, this being the modern age, popular resistance to the proposed zoning overhaul was aided by technology. E-mail is better than telephone banks for turning out the troops for key hearings. Also, information moves so quickly these days by computer that it's leveled the zoning playing field. Developers now find it much harder to overwhelm their opposition with statistics. The under-funded opponents are no longer under-informed.

Nevertheless, the long-term outcome of the zoning game isn't much in doubt. The dedicated opponents are only fighting a delaying action, and sooner or later the developers generally win.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 10/05/97

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