The use of zoning as a political tool recently made news when the mayors of Boston and Chicago threatened to prevent Chick-Fil-A from building in their cities. While these threats shocked many, the fact is, zoning has long been used for such nefarious purposes.
For example, zoning was used to stop Wal-Mart from opening a store in Hayward City, California. The store was opposed by unions, who flooded a hearing to oppose Wal-Mart’s labor practices. “I want my children to have the same opportunity I have, and that is good union jobs,” said one of the protesters.
While zoning can be used to punish those with views contrary to the politicians and bureaucrats in charge, zoning can also be used to reward individuals and businesses when the mood strikes. For example, zoning officials can use variances, permits for “non-conforming” use, and other exceptions to allow a land use that would otherwise be illegal.
But why are such exceptions made? If zoning officials are so wise as to have the power to control all land use within a community, why must they make exceptions to their previous dictates? The obvious answer is: their previous dictates weren’t so good, and so they must be modified. But if their past dictates were in error, why should we believe that their current dictates are any better?
The fact is, when government officials can change the law at their discretion, the law is non-objective and a source of arbitrary power.
To demonstrate their commitment to the “public interest,” zoning officials hold hearings when they consider a variance or other change to the zoning code. These hearings attract loud mobs which debate over what constitutes the “public interest.” Non-owners of the property sanctimoniously assert their “right” to dispose of the property and lives of their neighbors, while the rightful owner helplessly waits for others to decide his future.
Yet, ownership means control. It means the freedom to use one’s property as one judges best, free from government controls and restrictions. Under zoning, land ownership is nominal—in name only. Under zoning, a property owner must grovel at the feet of zoning officials for permission to use his property.
Large companies, such as Wal-Mart or Chick-Fil-A may consider such rights-violating policies a cost of doing business. And unfortunately, it is. A large company may be absorb such costs (though they are ultimately passed on to the consumer), but what of a small business or home owner who does not have the same resources? They too are subjected to the same arbitrary rulings of zoning officials. While Chick-Fil-A may have to abandon its plans of opening a restaurant in Chicago, a small business owner may have to abandon his dreams.
For example, when Ahmed Ahmed wanted to open a hookah lounge in Hampton, New Hampshire, zoning officials denied his application for a variance. The town’s zoning ordinance does not specifically allow hookah lounges, and thus a variance was needed. From a local website: “John Nyhan, chairman of the Hampton Beach Area Commission, said the goal of the Hampton Beach Master Plan is to make the beach a family destination. Nyhan said a hookah lounge—where patrons smoke shisha (flavored tobacco) from a hookah, a multi-stemmed instrument that can be shared among patrons—is not a part of that plan.”
In other words, Ahmed’s plans don’t mesh with Nyhan’s, and Nyhan holds the trump card—the coercive power of zoning. But zoning officials in every community issue variances and other exceptions to that plan. Which means, they abandon their plan when it is politically convenient or popular.
Of course, businessmen often change their plans. The market is dynamic—the needs and wants of consumers can change often. Technology can open new opportunities. When businessmen change their plans, they do so with the knowledge that they will bear the costs and consequences. Their job is to assess risks and rewards. But who can predict the arbitrary rulings of zoning officials? Who knows when his plans will conform or conflict with the “public interest”?
If the citizens of a community do not want a particular business, they can make that point by refusing to buy its products or services. This is true whether the business is selling spiced tobacco or chicken sandwiches. A business that does not make sales will not be a business for long. But unless zoning officials are psychic—which variances demonstrate is not the case—how do they know if a business is desired or not? They can only rely on the noisy mobs that flock to zoning hearings.
The threats by politicians in Boston and Chicago sparked a debate over the right of free speech, but the rights of property are no less important. Indeed, property rights are the means by which we express our opinions, whether through our purchasing choices, what we publish on our website, or what we print on our press. It is not a coincidence a violation of property rights was the means by which freedom of speech was threatened—the two are inseparable.
Those who support the right of free speech must also support property rights. Just as they protest government intervention in the expression of one’s ideas, they must protest government intervention in the use of one’s property.