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Zoning Stifles Civil Society

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Many people worry that commercial culture is undermining Americans' civil spirit and neighborly cooperativeness. Yet few realize that government regulations often play a major role in crushing civil society. Zoning is one such regulation and Pennsylvania resident Angela Prattis is its most recent victim.

The city of Chester, where Angela lives, has an average individual annual income of only $19,000. During the summer, Angela spends each day giving away around 60 free lunches, provided by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, to neighborhood children from a gazebo on her property. She files weekly reports and is visited by a state worker every other week. Yet the town is shutting her down because she is in violation of a town zoning ordinance.

Anne Ayella, who is a member of the archdiocese, said, "Angela saw it as a way to contribute to the community in a positive way. There was nothing in it for her." It's hard to fathom that giving away food for free has become a commercial activity that violates residential zoning laws. If Angela continued in her goodwill outreach, she will be fined $600 per day- unless she applies for a zoning variance, which could cost her as much as $1,000 in fees.

There are many stories like Angela's. Children selling lemonade and Girl Scouts selling cookies are as American as apple pie. Yet, kids across the country have had lemonade stands and cookie tables shut down for violating zoning laws and other city ordinances.

Last month, 13-year-old Nathan Duzynski, from Holland Michigan, became a victim of zoning laws, after deciding that he would set up a hot-dog stand to generate proceeds that would benefit his disabled parents. Within 10 minutes of opening his stand, a city zoning official shut him down. He was on the border of downtown, which meant that he fell within the zone that prohibited food carts in the vicinity of the downtown commercial district in order to minimize competition for local restaurants.

These outlandish regulations are only a symptom of a larger problem. Zoning laws are politically determined and are thus often driven by business interests, which seek to stifle competition. Busy-bodied bureaucrats become licensed enforcers of how to structure the lives and activities of those around them. Zoning laws are abusive when they shut down people like Angela and Nathan, but they also are abused in their application to land use issues.

The city of Houston, Texas illustrates a viable alternative to zoning laws. More than 1 million people live in Harris County, an unincorporated part of Houston. The unincorporated section's ordinances control flooding, drainage, and plotting of property, but it has no traditional zoning regulations delimiting what can be done on private property. Instead, when neighborhoods desire to limit conflicting land uses, they adopt protective covenants that place limits on what someone can do on their property.

These covenants reflect the preferences of local residents because they are locally adopted, rather than mandated by a larger city government. When the covenants seem to prevent a reasonable activity, individuals like Angela and Nathan can appeal to neighbors and customers, rather than paying thousands in fees for a zoning variance.

All too often, people assume all problems must be solved by the market or by the government. Yet, the third alternative is through voluntary civil society. The late Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom's work illustrated how diverse people around the world participated in voluntary self-governance to regulate their behavior and provide collective goods in their communities.

Unfortunately, and all too often, government regulations stifle civil society just as much as regulations stifle free-markets. In the case of zoning, it prevents people from innovating and adopting their own ways to steer land use policies. In cases like Angela and Nathan's, it prevents people from engaging in community action to help their families and their neighbors.