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Are Zoning Laws Truly Needed?

Almost every state has approved of zoning and virtually every city in the country has implemented zoning.  Why?  Is it really necessary for us to tell a private property owner how to handle his own property.  Recently, Horry County denied a rezoning in Carolina Forest after facing pressure from neighbors, Horry County Council on Tuesday rejected a rezoning request for 58 single-family homes in Carolina Forest.

The 10-2 vote doesn’t mean the property owner can’t develop the site — a representative for the applicant said 69 housing units, a combination of single-family homes and townhouses, could be constructed under the existing zoning — but the developer’s preferred building proposal was denied.  Interestingly, the proposed plan only consisted of 58-homes; not the 69 homes allowed under the current zoning.  Therefore, why do we need and crave zoning on private property?

One of two implications might be drawn from this defense of Euclidean zoning: First, perhaps conventional zoning critics are missing some redeeming benefit that obviates its many costs. Second, like it or not, we live in a democratic country and zoning as it exists today is evidently the will of the people and thus deserves your respect.

The first possible interpretation is vague and unsatisfying. The second possible interpretation, however, is what I take to really be at the heart of this defense. After all, Americans love to make “love it or leave it” arguments when they’re in the temporary majority on a policy.

But is Euclidean zoning actually popular? The evidence for any kind of mass support for zoning in the early days is surprisingly weak. Despite the revolutionary impact that zoning would have on how cities operate, many cities quietly adopted zoning through administrative means. Occasionally city councils would design and adopt zoning regimes on their own, but often they would simply authorize the local executive to establish and staff a zoning commission.

Houston was among the only major U.S. city to put zoning to a public vote—a surefire way to gauge popularity, if it were there—and it was rejected in all five referendums. In the most recent referendum in 1995, low-income and minority residents voted overwhelmingly against zoning. Houston lacks zoning to this day.

If zoning was never popular, why did nearly every state and adopt it? Here it might help to clear up the actual origins of US zoning policy. Contrary to the popular view of zoning as a ground-up phenomenon, zoning was in fact developed, promoted, and heavily incentivized by the federal government.

Meanwhile, the major proponents of early zoning programs in cities like New York and Chicago were business groups and elite philanthropists. Where votes were held, as in cities like St. Louis, support for zoning was often openly predicated on the idea that zoning would implement and preserve racial segregation.

Needless to say, the poor, immigrants, and African Americans were often prevented from voicing their opposition to zoning and other racial segregation programs at the ballot box.

Yet the puzzle remains: if zoning was never popular, why did nearly every state and adopt it? Here it might help to clear up the actual origins of US zoning policy. Contrary to the popular view of zoning as a ground-up phenomenon, zoning was in fact developed, promoted, and heavily incentivized by the federal government.

Zoning as it exists today was developed by the federal Department of Commerce under future president Herbert Hoover. In 1924 and 1928, the department published the Standard Zoning Enabling Act and Standard City Planning Enabling Act, respectively, and distributed copies of each to every state legislature in the country.

These acts aimed to accomplish three goals: First, to popularize the policies among legislators and provide a clear federal seal of approval. Second, to provide a model for zoning enabling legislation—legislation whereby the state allows municipalities to undertake certain police powers—and make it easy for state legislatures to quickly pass it. Finally, to secure court approval of zoning.

At the time, the constitutionality of zoning was very much in doubt. Many zoning advocates both feared that poorly drafted zoning would prompt the courts to declare the policy unconstitutional nationwide and hoped that the widespread adoption of zoning would leave the courts hesitant to overturn it.

Whether or not towns and cities needed or even wanted zoning, waves of grants and technical experts were forthcoming to nudge municipalities to draft zoning ordinances.

Their strategy clearly worked: before 1920, just over a third of states had adopted any kind of zoning enabling legislation. By 1930, nearly three quarters of states had adopted the legislation. In 1926, a divided Supreme Court ruled in favor of zoning.

Over the next 90 years, the federal government would continue to promote and in many cases require zoning, particularly during the New Deal. In 1936, the USDA published rural zoning enabling legislation, designed to push zoning into small towns and rural hamlets. Whether or not towns and cities needed or even wanted zoning, waves of grants and technical experts were forthcoming to nudge municipalities to draft zoning ordinances.

Often, these zoning ordinances were crafted by non-locals to help municipalities meet federal mandates. After all, as the federal government played a larger role in financing state and local infrastructure projects, zoning came to be expected. Likewise, as the government entered into housing finance in 1934, low-density, racially segregated residential zoning became a necessary prerequisite to secure funding for residential projects or mortgages.

Today, the expectation that towns and cities have zoning continues to show up in applications for everything from infrastructure funding to emergency relief. Under such a regime, regardless of popular support, it would be downright weird if most towns and cities didn’t adopt zoning.

None of this is to say that there were never popular constituencies for zoning. A handful of states and cities had clearly adopted zoning by their own volition, as unsavory though their motives often were.  All of this casts serious doubt over the idea that zoning is in the result of popular movements or enjoys mass support today. Meanwhile, Eucludean zoning’s incredible costs become clearer every day.  If you need assistance with zoning issue or your private property rights, please give us a call at Goldfinch Winslow.

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