The City of Our Dreams

To many people, the absence of zoning in Houston explains every ill—whether real or imagined—that plagues the city. A comment to a recent Chronicle article illustrates this attitude:

It was too late to build the city of our dreams in 1836. They built a no zoning sprawl in a swamp and never corrected either mistake.

Interestingly, the writer of this comment believes that if the Allen Brothers had instituted zoning 180 years ago (and 80 years before any American city had zoning) Houston would be the city of our dreams today. Let us consider what this means.

Zoning gives government complete control of land use within a community. Under zoning, every aspect of land use is controlled and dictated by government officials. Under zoning, land owners may not use their property as they chose, but only as zoning officials permit.

In an effort to appear democratic, zoning boards often hold hearings to solicit input from the community. The result is a parade of noisy activists issuing a myriad of often contradictory demands regarding the use of a particular parcel of land.

Houstonians got a brief glimpse of this acrimonious process in the early 1990s when the city was debating zoning. At the time, the papers were filled with stories of neighbors fighting neighbors over properties that neither owned. On a smaller scale, this same acrimony is evident in the city’s historic districts, where preservationists seek to control land use in their neighborhood.

The advocates of zoning want to unleash this horror on the entire city. And that, we are to believe, would result in the city of our dreams.

In truth, zoning would create a city in the vision of city officials and the politically connected. It would be a city in which individuals would be forced to grovel at the feet of government bureaucrats for permission to use their property. Rather than being free to innovate, they would be shackled to the demands and decrees of zoning officials.

Some Houstonians believe that this would create a dream city. In truth, it would be a nightmare.

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