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Government / Local politics

A judge tells Houston to get a zoning code

Houston has many impressive qualities. In a 2012 ranking, Forbes called it the “coolest city” in the US. If it were its own country, it would have the 30th biggest economy in the world. There’s a house completley covered in beer cans, and it’s home to the National Museum of Funeral History (tagline: “Every day above ground is a good oneTM”).

There’s one other important respect in which the Texan city is completely unique: Houston is the only major US city without a zoning code. In fact, on at least three occasions, it’s voted against implementing one.

For those of you whose city planning jargon is a little on the rusty side, that means that there’s no overriding land use law dictating what types of development can be built where. There are still a few more minor planning restrictions (covering parking, heritage preservation and so on), as well as a few neighbourhood regulations. But it’s much easier to build any type of development, in any location and to any height you want, than in any other US city. In zoning terms, Houston is the least regulated city in the country.

Appropriately, this year the city changed its slogan to this:

This freedom recently came under threat, however, thanks to the opponents of a new luxury apartment block in Southwest Houston.

At 23-storeys tall, residents felt that the new block would look rather out of place, surrounded by one- and two-storey houses. So, they appealed to the city government to block the scheme on grounds including nuisance, noise, and the loss of value to their own (rather shorter) properties. The city government, which wasn’t nuts about the new development either, was minded to do so. The only problem was, with no zoning laws to back it up, it ran out of objections and, in 2012 was forced to approve a building.

So the homeowners escalated their complaint to the Houston District Court. There, too, the judge ruled that the development could go ahead, on the grounds that any injunction would “have a chilling effect on other developments in Houston”.

But he did award 20 homeowners a total of $1.2m in damages, on the grounds that the tower would constitute a nuisance. More remarkably, he recommended that Houston should consider “whether zoning is appropriate for this city” as it gets larger.

It’s hard to say whether anyone will listen to his advice: Governing magazine noted that bringing in zoning now would instantaneously re-value properties all over the city, a move that’d win someone rather a lot of enemies.

It’s not even clear that zoning would actually be a good thing. People complain about the city’s sprawl and hostility to walkers; but other Sun Belt cities like Los Angeles, Phoenix or Atlanta, which do have zoning laws, all sprawl in a similar way.

In practice, in fact, zoning laws can actually promote car use – by, for example, stipulating how wide roads should be and how much parking is available. The limited planning laws Houston already has already require that new developments all come with huge car parks, intersections are at least 600 feet apart, and new roads are all much wider than the average US road width. None of this is exactly ideal for pedestrians.

Actually, the main effect of Houston’s lack of zoning has been to spread its amenities around the city far more than that otherwise would have been. Shops and bars can open up in suburban, residential areas far more easily than in many other US cities. Here’s the layout of bars in Dallas, where most are clustered in the downtown area:

In Houston, on the other hand, bars are, well, pretty much everywhere:

(The maps are based on Google’s searches, so are unlikely to be comprehensive, but you get the picture all the same.)

This is obviously annoying if you live in a family home and there’s a lively bar on your street; but it also means you don’t have to travel to the centre of town to visit a Laundromat. The introduction of zoning laws would mean tighter restrictions on what businesses could open up where. But for now, at least, Houston’s freedom from zoning prevails.  
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