Comment of the Day: How We Beat the Zoning Boards

COMMENT OF THE DAY: HOW WE BEAT THE ZONING BOARDS “. . . I’ll have to plead the 5th as to how I came to understand this, but let it be known that city councils and P&Z boards can be bought over quite easily. All it takes is for a developer to contract the consulting services of a well-connected ex-councilmember at some ludicrious price and send him to town with a five-figure entertainment budget (which sounds like a lot, but isn’t in the scope of a $50 mil. project); meanwhile, the developer ensures that their first renderings contain a few blatantly offensive architectural features that the targeted politicians can criticize. The developer makes the changes requested (which they would’ve made anyway) so as that the targeted politicians can save face with their constituents. And the really dangerous part of all this is that once a politician is clearly in your pocket, it’s hard for them to say no to just about anything else in the future so long as the developer provides them with a mechanism to save face. . . .” [TheNiche, commenting on Ashby Highrise Loses Appeal]

18 Comment

  • I’ve always held the position that the more power you give government to do things for you, the more corrupt it will get.

    Let’s say the zoning board existed and the developers of Ashby wined and dined the board to Ok the project. All of the neighborhood opposition would have nowhere to go. The zoning board will hear their arguments, then vote against the neighborhood. The zoning also aren’t elected. So they don’t get bogged down with ethics complaints.

    At least our system is more open. Everything is there to see if you want to find it.

  • Looks to me that if you’re implying that Buckhead passed some money under the table so to speak, Buckhead has another lawsuit.

  • Actually, if we had zoning, there’s no way in hell that Buckhead would’ve spent $500k for infrastructure upgrades in the first place without having first ensured that the land was zoned for the project that they intended. That’d just have been standard due diligence.
    And of course, asking for a zoning variance for a highrise at this **particular** site would’ve still sparked fierce neighborhood opposition. Just as is (apparently) the case without zoning, whoever can buy the most influence wins.
    In neighborhoods other than the elite blue-blood enclaves, however, the developer can typically buy more clout than the neighborhood possesses as constituents. And in a city as geographically large as Houston, where at-large councilmembers and the mayor can afford to piss off any one neighborhood without materially affecting their city-wide popularity, that’s especially true.
    On net, the effect of zoning (or its mangled cousin, form-based codes) is ultimately that it breeds corruption and magnifies cronyism as a problem, increases the cost of doing business which leads to higher costs of living in the City as compared to unincorporated areas, which makes unincorporated suburban areas more attractive to developers, and all for what? …so that we can look more like Dallas!?
    One of the great ironies about Houston is that without zoning, we have the world’s largest cluster of medical institutions, we have the largest cluster of office buildings outside of the old cities of the Northeast, Chicago, or San Francisco, and we have a single-use port complex of magnificent size and productive power.
    I can sympathize with those that want to make Houston a prettier place to live in, but I can’t help that there aren’t hills and mountains or that our beaches don’t have white sand or that the brown sediment in our bayous is mistaken for pollution by ill-informed dilletantes. And the time to reverse TXDoT policy on feeder roads was 40 or 50 years ago. That’s why people perceive all the major cities in Texas (with or without zoning) as ugly, and that’s why zoning won’t help fix that major issue.
    To the extent that beautification is a priority, the best thing we can do is to target certain corridors for burial of power lines, planting trees, landscaping our ROWs, and cleaning up vacant lots. Upper Almeda is a good example of how it should work, IMO. …none of which was acheived from land use controls.

  • Mystery Matt, I don’t think anybody is implying that Buckhead has passed money under the table.

  • All of the neighborhood opposition would have nowhere to go.
    But where can they go with what we have now? They have nowhere to go without going outside of the law. Zoning doesn’t give neighborhoods absolute power. Nor should it. But it would give some recourse without going outside of established ordinances.

    Most of all it would have established to Buckhead before they bought the property that it wasn’t a suitable location, and regulatory battles could be expected. *OR* to the residents of SH that there could be a highrise next door at any point-in-time.

    It’s all about managing expectations.

  • There are some thinking people here on both sides of the zoning issue. Does anyone have clear example of a city with zoning and the clear evidence of why it is better or worse, which hopefully to include the economics.

  • Alexander, just Google the terms ‘Dallas,’ ‘Zoning,’ and ‘Bribery.’ Check out who was convicted last week of which charges. And when you read about it, just bear in mind that that was only what happens when bribors and bribees lack legal discipline. Most of them are far more discrete and never get called out.
    As for the economic impact, it mostly depends on how seriously planning is taken by local politicians. Compare Dallas with Portland.
    In Portland, new urbanism defines the city. It is manufactured incrementally according to rigorous formulae. The City of Portland takes their role seriously and comes down on anything offensive with incredible zeal. As a consequence, there are immense barriers to entry for new development and the cost of living is quite high as compared with cities of comparable size, yet there is a perceptible difference between it and most other cities in the United States. Personally, I wouldn’t want to live there because I think it lacks a soul, but I’ll bet most people find it more aesthetically pleasing than somewhere like Dallas. So it basically becomes a question of whether it’s worth it to live there, and the decision to move there often is based in no small part on whether one can afford it.
    Now consider Dallas, which has zoning and involves itself in city planning, yet maintains a very lax attitude towards these roles (unless they happen to involve bars that are too loud and are in close proximity to townhomes built nearby, in which case the bars’ licenses are not renewed). Dallas leads the nation in rate of demolition of old apartments, very enthusiastically pushing out low-income households into surrounding suburban municipalities to make way for shiny new apartments. There are in fact several clusters of overpriced parcels of well-located land in Dallas that have been amalgamated as a portfolio. The land used to be comprised of apartments, but some investors came in, got the City to declare that these areas were zoned as “Planned Development” (basically meaning that they aren’t zoned until further notice), and then demolished thousands of apartment units in order to list the land for sale to buyers that never materialized. Did that help the citizens of Dallas in any way? I suppose that if you lived in an upper middle class subdivision nearby, the answer is yes, because it cleared out all the lower-income households. But mostly it was just a tale of thousands of evictions of poor residents. Meanwhile, if you drive the streets of Dallas, it wouldn’t be terribly difficult to mistake it for Houston…unless you happen to be in their puny downtown area, in which case the difference is rather obvious…and not in their favor.
    Ask yourself whether if Houston had zoning, would you trust your elected officials to zealously guard neighborhoods and implement all the lastest new urbanist formulae, or if you would you expect laziness, corruption, and cronyism? Even if you trusted the officials presently in office, would you be willing to trust the individuals that inherit power in upcoming elections? Essentially, if you think we’d just end up squandering the opportunity that zoning represently, as in the case of Dallas, then what’s the point in having it? And even if our City government did grab the bull by the horns, would you be able to afford and appreciate the long-term outcome?
    I can’t speak for you, but my opinion on the matter is that zoning is a lose-lose proposition, whether it is handled competently and zealously or not.

  • Another way to get around issues with zoning boards is to get the client to contact the economic development director for the city and threaten to cancel the project.

  • Niche, I may agree with no zoning, but your response was blither, not a single economic specific figure or study. You intelligentally deliver an argument that has no purpose and no point. Where are the facts?

    Hey, you sound like a nice and well meaning person, but I am looking for facts.

    Does anyone have specific facts as to relate to the success or lack there of a zoned city versus one that is not zoned?

  • Alexander,
    My argument has both a purpose and a point, however is not backed up because, frankly, I don’t have the spare time to cite sources. It’s not a research paper, it’s a real estate blog. And I’m not an academician, I’m a businessperson.
    What I can tell you in summation, having studied urban economics in an academic setting, is that there are enough confounding variables given a limited sample size of major U.S. cities that conclusions are largely subjective.

  • Niche, hey, may have been harder than I should, you put together a thorough anaylisis, which should be respected.

    You have my respect

  • I would agree that there are a lot of strong arguments why the rigid system employed by Portland is not the best solution. However I would have to disagree about whether the city has no soul. Although I wasn’t there long I would have to say that I found Portland to have soul coming out of it’s ears.

  • While TheNiche speaks a lot of good sense, the idea that we ought not to have laws because they breed corruption is plain silliness.
    Transparency International’s research shows a clear corrolation between poverty and corrution. The nations that come out cleanest are those with great prosperity and most have strong social safety nets, i.e the disparity between rich and poor is less.

    The US ranks 18th. And as we all know, the corruption here is top notch. We don’t pay bribes to get a drivers license. We produce Enrons and Madoffs.

  • TheNiche,

    Very well stated post. I also wholeheartedly agree that zoning is pretty pointless and can be accomplished without providing additional empowerment to appointed governmental employees who often have a chip on their shoulders.

    There are way too many people around that think more government is the answer to all that ills the country. Increased governmental involvement in our lives usually results in constant aggravation and additional ongoing cost of living/doing business.

    I have witnessed countless examples of friends and/or relatives absurd experiences with zoning nazis wreaking havoc on their real estate plans.

    Another example of how a governmental entity practices absurd increased interference in our private lives is how now Lowes automatically charges a mandatory $45 city inspection fee for every toilet, faucet, or sink that they sell which includes their install service. Why on earth should a city inspection be required because you want a faucet replaced? Naturally Lowes isn’t pushing this, but they got burned on a situation where one of the little city inspectors fined an install contractor because they didn’t have a permit for freaking faucet install!

    Now, I can certainly install my own faucet, sink or toilet and thumb my nose at the city’s obnoxious revenue generation scheme, but many people need the expertise of a contractor for these types of simple procedures.

    My point is, at every turn, those that think (or should be say, don’t think, but “feeeeel”) more government is necessary in every facet of life have lost their sense of reason. Personal responsibility folks…. bottom line. It isn’t the government’s job to be our nanny at every turn.

  • So,my take-away on all of this is that developers are evil because they pay for good representation to enlist support for projects that may not be popular with everyone. Is that right? If it is, it sounds just like anyone hiring an attorney, accountant, consultant, etc. to make a case that is not 100% clear. Is that a bad thing?

    And, let’s not forget the tantrum that the good people of Southampton threw when Ashby was announced. I have heard reports that one woman proudly announced at one of the public hearings that the City “owed it to them” to buy the site and turn it into a park. And I assure you they hired a flotilla of attorneys at no small price. Is that bad (other than the sense of entitlement)?
    Bottom line is that Buckhead played by the rules and did everything the City asked them to do and everything they were required to do. As debatable as their plans are, they should still be allowed to build.

  • “I have heard reports that one woman proudly announced at one of the public hearings that the City “owed it to them” to buy the site and turn it into a park. And I assure you they hired a flotilla of attorneys at no small price.”
    Wow, and because you HEARD about this woman, it must be true, and it also probably represents how everyone in that neighborhood reacted.

    Oh, and most of the attorney expense has been pro bono by all the fancy-schmancy lawyers who live in our neighborhood.

  • I heard the comment about the City “owing” the good people of Southampton a park from someone who attended one of the meetings at Poe. The person that told me did not have a strong opinion on either side of the Ashby dispute, to my knowledge, and told me in bewilderment at the sense of entitlement that this woman obviously has.

    I suppose a wise assumption on my part would have been that the legal work would be gratis to y’all. I hear some of the high priced attorneys have a bit more time on their hands now than they used to. Besides, they have something at stake, and it’s hard to fault them for promoting their own interests.

    That all said, you miss my bigger point which is that Niche’s rant about developers having paid representatives would also logically apply to anyone who pays a representative. The only difference between the two is defined by the observer’s opinion (put another way, who you as the observer think is right).

  • Oh, and most of the attorney expense has been pro bono by all the fancy-schmancy lawyers who live in our neighborhood.


    Well how about disclosing how much wasn’t pro bono and how much that has cost? I wonder if the homeowners know. Which they might want to know given they will be on the hook as taxpayers if not homeowners if a lawsuit is filed for the developers.

    As for the comment by the one homeowner which apparently quite a few heard even though the media chose not to run it, it just further reflects this pretentiousness of the homeowners in general in Southampton and Boulevard Oaks. Pretentious with nothing to be pretentious about except their ability to stand above the law. I still say the developers should donate the land to West U for a new sewage treatment plant. Or better yet apply for a HUD housing grant and put in a 23 story housing complex. Which would improve the quality of residents in the area.