When the boorish rule the village

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For several years, I have been writing a column for the local newspaper in Chama, New Mexico. My column has focused on zoning. Below is the most recent column.

All of us have likely experienced a nosy individual who likes to complain about how others paint their house, landscape their yard, or conduct their affairs. While such complainers can be annoying, their complaints remain a private affair and others are free to live as they choose. But what if those complaints had the power of law? What if this boorish individual could force others to abide by his dictates?

This is precisely what zoning allows. Under zoning, the planning and zoning commission can dictate every aspect of land-use in Chama, from the color of your shutters to the shrubs you plant, from the number of cars you can park in your driveway to whom may live in your home. Under zoning, the boorish become more than annoying complainers—they gain a powerful political tool to impose their values upon others.

Defenders of zoning argue that land-use controls merely reflect the “will of the people” and are intended to promote the “public interest.” While such clichés may make for good sound bites, they are undefined terms that are intended to disarm opponents.

Do the residents of Chama speak with one voice? Do they agree on every public policy, including land use? The answer is clearly no. From leisure activities to religion, from cuisine to politics, Chamans have different values. Some might prefer football over baseball, while others prefer Thai food over steak.

The “will of the people” means that the interests and values of some individuals supersede the interests and values of other individuals. It means that some individuals may impose their interests and values upon others.

That members of the planning and zoning commission are elected democratically does not change this fact. The number of people supporting a policy does not alter the fact that, under zoning, you can be compelled to act contrary to your own judgment. For example, the planning and zoning commission can force you to paint your shutters “Sassy Green” if it believes doing so will serve the “public interest.”

You may think that it would be absurd to be compelled to paint your shutters “Sassy Green,” but under zoning your opinions do not matter. Under zoning, the absurd can be forced upon you.

For example, in Princeton, New Jersey, Irving Urken was threatened with a ninety-day jail sentence after he displayed a few barbecue grills in front of his hardware store, which he had been doing for fifty-seven years. A new zoning ordinance banned anything in front of any store in town—except books, flowers, plants, vegetables, and newspapers. In East Hampton, Long Island, authorities issued a warrant for the arrest of Jerry Della Femina because he had some pumpkins stacked in front of his store—a violation of the local zoning ordinance.

You might think that such bizarre restrictions would never find their way to Chama. But all it takes is a few noisy individuals to convince the planning and zoning commission that the “public interest” would be served by some provision. The local Laundromat could be forced to remove all signage because airing one’s dirty laundry in public is distasteful. Or, the veterinarian could be forced to install a drive-through window to make it easier for hurried clients to drop off their pets.

Regardless of the details, zoning is a powerful political tool that allows nosy individuals to impose their values upon the entire community. Zoning allows the boorish to rule the village.

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