One of the driving forces of immigration for the early settlers was the potential for ownership of property. The founding fathers insured this underlying motive by protecting this right in our constitution. It is common that we learn life, liberty, and happiness included our right to own property as written in the constitution by our founding fathers. Now, over two centuries later, we recognize the significance of this ideal. It is through homeownership our communities are strengthened, our citizens find confidence, and our new generations strive to improve.
As our country grew, we often found favor in living in close proximity to one another. Generally nothing occurred as individuals held similar values making development homogeneous. Certainly there would have been neighborly discussions and compromises as new land uses formed, yet nothing arose creating a need for governmental oversight until the early 1900’s. In 1916, a landowner wanted to build a high rise in New York City. The building stands today; it is the Equitable Building on 120 Broadway. At its completion, the height stripped neighboring residents of their desired sunshine among other perceived encroachments.
The adoption of laws addressing this issue were the blueprint of today’s zoning regulations. The first national rollout of land planning came through the Department of Commerce in 1924. It was called “The Standard State Zoning Enabling Act.” Zoning ordinances have been challenged over the years in a variety of ways, yet were famously upheld as constitutional by the Supreme Court in 1926 with “Village of Euclid, Ohio v. Ambler Realty Co” as a means to provide guidance to homogeneous uses. In this case, a land owner felt their value was undermined due to a restriction of use. Amber Realty wanted to expand industry; Euclid City felt an expansion of industry would change the character of the town. Amber Realty sued to enable the construction of an industrial site and lost, taking the case to the Supreme Court because the use wasn’t in conformity with zoning.
While zoning regulation spread in popularity across the nation, it has never been fully or uniformly adopted by every municipality. Houston, Texas, for example elected to follow a path with no zoning ordinances, and others such as Portland, Oregon, have adopted highly restrictive ordinances which far surpass others. One can argue positive features of either choice; however, Houston with no zoning ordinances has implemented development standards that indicate how lots are to be divided, what setbacks are to be used, and outline parking requirements.
With the New York building thought to have infringed on neighboring property rights, zoning ordinances were established as a resource to place compatible uses in proximity. For example, zoning segregates commercial uses from residential and identifies agricultural areas and industrial uses. It addresses density, height, open space, location of structures, and, as in Houston’s development standards, zoning often defines setbacks, parking, and lot size.
Never was the intent to strip an owner from his or her rights as a property owner, but to insure that an adjoining parcel could understand what his or her neighbors’ rights were. This eliminated the unknown where either the land owner or a purchaser could determine value, knowing what to expect on adjacent parcels, and/or develop the parcel complying with the allowed uses.
Communities used this tool (zoning) in planning for growth and in creating an environment where the public could realize the highest and best use for the land within their boundaries. Zoning maps covering entire communities outlining all applicable uses are defined as a “Master Plan.” The master plan is created by looking at existing uses and the character of the property found within the jurisdiction. Municipalities then specify ideals, project growth, and design needed infrastructure to accommodate future development. Certainly zoning over the years has helped cities deal with population expansion by creating what becomes an attractive, healthy, vibrant community. However, as intended in its origin, zoning assures property owners what to expect on neighboring parcels and within the area. Residents understand the characteristics sought and thereby gain a sense of stability, knowing what to expect as growth comes. Any resident can and should participate in the planning of communities as master plans are created or altered over the years. The process is public and calls out for opinions. Often, public outcry comes at the time a new development is announced. If those same critics would have participated in the creation of the master plan they would have either understood or have made changes. For residents who move into communities after plans are established, they need to do nothing more than understand what and where development will come.
Unfortunately today, some municipalities have taken what was intended to preserve property rights and used them to strip individuals of the very same rights protected. An example is dictating building materials or defining what interior products are valued and through a point system promoted to be used. Justification often is that a community wants to attract a particular owner or improve the quality of their residents. What they don’t realize is that these highly restrictive, perhaps invasive, overreaching ordinances which are implemented are infringing on the freedoms our country was built on.
We as a free people enjoy seeking out those areas that meet our personal ideals. Neighborhoods where we can knowingly purchase property expecting what will be nearby. We don’t, however, want our elected officials inside our homes telling us where rooms are to be placed, what paint is best, what countertops are ideal, if our closet should be walk-in, height of ceilings, lighting, types of appliances, or what material our carpet is to be made of. Where would allowance of this type of mindset take us? I can name places in our world where I bet this type of government involvement exists. I choose not to live there, as did our early settlers and founding fathers.
Yes, give me as a property owner a general understanding of what I can do, and what is allowed within the community I elect to live in or do business, but under no circumstance dictate to me what is to be done in my personal space. My taste may well differ from my community leaders. If my choices suggest that at time of sale this asset is valued lower because of my decision, that is my choice.
I expect to be kept from placing a pig in the parlor, not from enjoying the amenities that I personalize. I expect to be guided in whether or not a residence, commercial use, or other use is planned, not the style or building elements I can use. Give me a footprint, a height, and a allowed use so I don’t do as the Equitable Building did—infringe on my neighbor—but certainly permit my genius the right to build my dream, or allow for a builder/developer to create what they believe will sell.
Leaders of community, if you don’t like the type of residents/business coming to your area, revisit the master plan and, with input from residents, define what the community wants as a whole. That is the process we have chosen; it is what our elected officials are to follow. No one in America lives here hoping to have leaders dictate who the ideal resident/business is or what their homes/places of business are to contain.