How Libertarians Can Beat Zoning and Defend Local Property Rights

The Colorado Freedom Report:  A libertarian journal of politics and culture.

The Colorado Freedom

How Libertarians Can Beat Zoning and Defend Local Property Rights

by Jerry Van Sickle, November 10, 2003

I'd like to test a libertarian strategy that can be initiated locally at anytime -- a joint venture with few costs in dollars that can involve any of us in ways that will benefit our fellow citizens. We can increase our credibility and our participation in local government and enhance our chances of winning elections. I'm interested in any and all reactions.

Local building, zoning, and planning deal with down-to-earth property rights and what is probably the most economically significant power used by local governments. The decisions about building and zoning codes by city and county officials can be appealed to appointed citizen boards by those proposing to build or their neighbors. Most major projects are reviewed by staff members, then by these boards and county commissioners or city councils. Their decisions are likely to be supported by higher courts as long as proper procedures are followed.

Anyone may ask to see the issues beforehand and attend the hearings. I suggest that libertarians review the issues involved, pick those that seem most significant to us, and offer solutions that we believe are fair for everyone impacted in any significant way. Based on our basic beliefs, we'll focus on property rights which should be at the core of land use decisions, but are usually ignored by non-libertarian office holders and their hand-picked board members.

This task doesn't need to be complicated. Once the issues are understood, common sense and a sense of justice are enough. Our suggestions may boil down to reasonable compensation, or buffers between less compatible neighbors -- enough open space, dense landscaping, or fencing to mitigate unreasonable noise, traffic, or any other harms.

Open space or landscaped buffers may include greenbelts, paths and bikeways, which can also provide protection between busy roads and nearby homes. Such buffers may gradually undermine any excuses for dictating the interior layout and aesthetics of new development, or limiting uses, except when those effects reach beyond the buffers. In other words, no more zoning.

We should provide our input in writing to all those involved in time for them to ponder it, then request that our input and any responses be kept in the official records. Any proposals and reasons can be offered to the press to invite their attention to significant issues and principles that libertarians alone my raise. We might even inspire the press to cover such hearings.

We should ask to see previous decisions and their reasoning where similar issues were involved. Few are likely to be recorded in any detail or indexed for easy access. City and county attorneys may even insist that board decisions can only be "variances" or "exceptions," each one to be treated "on its own merits." Exposing this process may inspire major participants to challenge the process itself in court as a red carpet for unbridled discretion and political power -- the very opposite of equality before the law or equal protection -- a major ingredient of the rule-of-law. As I see this issue, we'll have done our greatest service on this score.

Libertarians will be practicing what we preach: helping to define and restore property rights at the ground level. Our efforts may occasionally earn the wrath of all sides, but more often we may restore concern and protection for individual victims and their loss of property rights, then the understanding that property rights are basic human rights, basic justice, basic freedoms.

Open space and landscaped buffers may be an easy way for new development to offer protection to existing neighbors using amenities for their own buyers. We'll have planted a powerful libertarian seed: mutual benefits can be created without taxes!

If records are not kept, in spite of our requests, our own records may be a storehouse of win-win solutions. We can test and share our ideas among ourselves -- which may even create a source of income for the libertarian movement. If new decisions begin to take previous decisions into account, precedents will have taken hold. Occasional review by higher courts will spread the results to all of Colorado and beyond.

Our participants may be invited to serve on local boards, but in any case the detailed knowledge and credibility gained from our research and suggestions can be a valuable path to elected office.

Building, zoning, and planning are not the only local regulations, but the basic reasoning and libertarian principles involved will apply to regulations at every level of government. As the basic principles and ever improving definitions of rights are rediscovered, there should be fewer regulatory battles, fewer violations of rights, and fewer individual tragedies. Legislation and regulations can be quietly humanized or even replaced by principles that protect individual rights or demand compensation. We will begin to replace rigid or inflexible legislation and regulations. What is called "settled law" will replace the intrusive government at every level.

If these suggestions seem worth pursuing, I'll be pleased to hear your additions and happy to offer many more details and comments on specific issues in your communities based on a lifetime of wrestling with land use issues as an architect and builder. Please send any comments to me via COFREE, or to vansicklej*AT*, or Jerry Van Sickle at 617 College Avenue, Boulder, Colorado 80302.

The Colorado Freedom