All Zoning, All Day
Let’s move from the theoretical debate over zoning to an actual example taking place right here near the Show-Me Institute’s Clayton office. Today’s Post-Dispatch has a story about the possibility that Clayton may allow local neighborhoods to establish strict architectural guidelines for the demolition or alteration of homes within historic districts. It would take 51 percent of property owners to petition for the creation of a local preservation district with very broad powers to limit tear-downs, establish property rules, etc., and would then require two-thirds of the property owners vote in favor for it to take effect. There is no denying that this could lead to 70 percent of the property owners in an area — perhaps the 70 percent who plan on staying long-term — causing economic harm to the 30 percent who might have a desire to significantly alter or improve their property before selling it. That part is clear, and I am not even necessarily opposed to this.
This is a pretty stark example of the threat of the tyranny of the majority versus the tyranny of the minority. Here you have the potential for enough property owners who agree with the plan to limit the rights and options of the few who might disagree with it. Most of the people here at the Show-Me Institute fear the tyranny of the majority much more than the reverse, and no doubt it is the much larger threat to liberty. But the reverse can be true, too. You get the tyranny of the minority when one atheist files suit to block a prayer at graduation that the other 999 students desire. Or when one parent objects to something in a textbook — evolution, perhaps — so the entire school either becomes subject to a disclaimer, or ditch the book entirely. Sometimes, one loud person who complains about their rights enough can restrict the rights for an entire group. Sometimes that person is right, and sometimes they are just a jerk.
This leads back to the question at hand in Clayton. Should the will of the majority stand, as will likely happen through passage of historic preservation districts? Or should the rights or people to do what they want with their property take precedence? Let’s be clear — this is not eminent domain, because no property will be taken away. But, conversely, I don’t think the plan calls for compensating anyone who can prove they are financially damaged if their proposed tear-down project is denied.
I know what some will say: If the neighbors want to preserve their historic values so much, they should buy the property of those who don’t. That is putting their money where their mouth is. On the other hand, it only takes one property owner surrounded by historic homes to put up a monstrosity that damages the property values for everyone. Then again, I have always liked the Miami Vice house on Lindell, and I am pretty sure it didn’t damage any property values there.
I say go with the will of the majority when it comes to historic preservation districts. But I really do see both sides of the argument.