Zoning Bigots

A Los Angeles County land use war shows the dark history and darker future of urban planning.

“Blacks,” Baltimore’s progressive mayor J. Barry Mahool said in 1910, “should be quarantined in isolated slums in order to reduce the incidents of civil disturbance, to prevent the spread of communicable disease into the nearby White neighborhoods, and to protect property values among the White majority.” Mahool was not just sowing some of the seeds of the race hatred that bloomed in Charm City throughout the 20th century. He was also laying out the logic of planning and zoning that applies to the present day. The zoning ordinance Mahool stumped for in 1910 became a model for New York City’s landmark 1916 Zoning Resolution, which established the international habit of imposing “setback” requirements for tall buildings and limiting height based on lot size. 

In a June New York Times op-ed piece, architecture critic Sarah Williams Goldhagen applauded the Big Apple’s zoning resolution, which in its current form is 3,411 pages long and includes detailed prescriptions for the operation of cotton gins, tight restrictions on placement of “tot-lots,” and 4,351 instances of the word permit. (If you placed all those permits end to end, you would get four articles as long as the one you’re reading.) Goldhagen views this unwieldy document as a victory for “urban dwellers” who “realized that developers…would never reliably serve the public interest.” She believes this leap forward in urban planning created vibrant contemporary cities, despite occasional reversals when “populist, antigovernment sentiment among voters began to shift power back into private hands.” And she hopes to head off future episodes of revanchism by empowering “design review boards, staffed by professionals trained in aesthetics and urban issues and able to influence planning and preservation decisions.”

An architecture critic would need to be pretty sheltered to claim, in a city where only bazillionaire developers have the legal muscle to build so much as a roof on a porch, that the problem is an underdeveloped regulatory apparatus. But at least nobody moves to New York so he can live large in wide-open spaces. For that you move out west. Or used to.

Northeast Los Angeles County is a flat desert of cacti and tumbleweeds that easily stands in for Texas and Mexico in Hollywood movies. The Antelope Valley is populated in significant part by truckers, retirees, and mavericks who move there specifically to get away from urban busybodies. Their lifestyle choices—including septic tanks, self-generated power, self-built homes, and usually a few old vehicles on the lot—would probably displease neighbors “trained in aesthetics and urban issues,” but for the most part they have no neighbors. At some Antelope Valley residences you can do a 360-degree turn around the property without seeing a single other person or building.

That has not stopped big government from kicking people out of their homes. Since 2006 Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich has been dispatching “nuisance abatement teams,” consisting of officers from various city and county agencies along with sheriff’s deputies, to conduct armed raids against property owners whose residences fail to meet paperwork requirements. Although some of these raids target “eyesores,” for the most part they are for permit problems only, with no claims of safety violations, fire hazards, or anything else that could be called a compelling public interest.

L.A. County’s Planning and Zoning Code isn’t quite the size of New York’s, but it is more than 438,000 words long and prints out at 1,300 pages. It provides more than enough discouragement to any property owner without top-notch lawyers and more than enough ammunition for the county to harass and remove property owners who don’t fit into the New Urbanist vision of L.A. as something it never was: a swanky, high-density, transit-centered city with a vital downtown.

You could make a decent case that the campaign to harass and remove property owners is no less bigoted than Mayor Mahool’s quarantine proposal. Although blacks, whites, and Latinos have all been targeted for nuisance abatement raids, these folks share one characteristic: They don’t meet the standards of respectability set by the political class and large urban landowners. In some cases the county’s lifestyle demands shade into bias on religious grounds. Oscar Castaneda, a mechanic and Seventh Day Adventist minister who was ordered to tear down his entire property, lives in the high desert because his faith impels him to a rural, self-sufficient life.

Los Angeles zoning practice is bigoted in other ways that are often overt. A city (not county) ordinance preventing residents from keeping more than one rooster on a property is clearly aimed at Latino homeowners. A maze of restrictions on convenience stores and fast food joints applies in South L.A. but not in tonier areas. During the jihad against “McMansions” a few years ago, the popular term for large properties was “Persian Palaces”—a swipe at L.A.’s Iranian-American community.

“There’s definitely an attempt to squeeze out of Angelenos the very things that make them Angelenos and not New Yorkers or Bostonians,” says Chapman University urban theorist Joel Kotkin. “There are two forces at work: One is the effort to re-engineer people into wards of the state. The other is urban land interests who want to force people to live in ways they don’t want to live.” 

Or to live somewhere else. Many of the Antelope Valley homeowners we spoke with for a recent reason.tv report have given up the struggle and are planning to leave California. What Antonovich (who refused requests for an interview) has in mind for their vacated properties is not clear. Educated guesses include a plan for massive wind-power generation and a scheme to turn the half-horse town of Palmdale into a high-density, smart-growth hub for the California high-speed rail project. If you know Palmdale you know that the notion of turning it into a hipster paradise would be funny—except that this pipe dream is destroying the lives of real people. They’re just not the right sort of people.  

Tim Cavanaugh is a senior editor at reason.

Bonus Reason.tv video: "Battle for the California Desert: Why Is the Government Driving Folks Off Their Land?"

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • ||

    You can own a rooster in the city? That should be a hanging offense.

  • Foghorn||

    Can't have government cocksuckers without cocks.

  • Tony||

    Well of course you knew that this would get my attention.

  • Kroneborge||

    "You can own a rooster in the city? That should be a hanging offense."

    +1

    No roosters in urban areas please. I had a neighbor that had one once, it almost led to violence many times.

  • Colonel_Angus||

    Externalities!

  • ||

    If you an acre of land and your rooster lives in the middle of it, its cool. If he perches 5 feet from my window, an issue might be had.

    *not a fan of roosters*

  • Paul||

    You can own a rooster in the city?

    Welcome to Seattle.

    However, in Seattle, I'm not surprised there isn't an ordinance forcing you to own a rooster, as most of Seattle's city council and Mayor's office has this vision that at some point, every city dweller will be "urban farming" and composting his own brownwater...

  • ||

    However, in Seattle, I'm not surprised there isn't an ordinance forcing you to own a rooster

    Win. :)

  • Skr||

    I would like to see the ordinance. It is generally assumed that you can have chickens but no roosters. I thought that was the law. Besides the whole cockfighting aspect I don't see the racism. Roosters fucking suck to live next to in the city. I've managed to get used to one but mutliples are a bitch. Plus you only need one rooster to knock up the hens to make more chickens to eat.

  • Overt||

    What Skr said. Mr Cavanaugh is trying too hard to sound like a ridiculous PC Liberal. I thought Reason was all about drawing logical conclusions from basic facts...Instead Tim calls "Racist" in an attempt to shortcut that whole reasoning thing.

    You might object to rooster bans on liberty grounds, but arguing that it is some sort of anti-latino ordinance is stupid.

    Roosters wake you up. Constantly. They are worse than dogs barking, and cannot be trained not to crow. Getting several of them is guaranteeing that your neighbors will never get decent shut eye.

    I lived in Altadena, CA where a lot of people liked to engage in urban agriculture. Roosters were a big problem, because the lots were so small.

    What's really sad is that this is an opportunity for Libertarians to put the Reason behind their rhetoric and deal with a real issue here...instead Tim just screams "Racist" so that we don't have to talk about the balance between liberty and public nuisance.

  • Amakudari||

    Yes, roosters also fight each other a ton. And they don't taste as good. I lived near a co-op that raised their own chickens (and I had no problems with them).

    I mean, conceivably, you could allow people to sue each other for the noise pollution, but there are worse laws out there.

  • Old Mexican||

    In his column from our October issue, Senior Editor Tim Cavanaugh explains how a Los Angeles land use battle shows the dark history and darker future of urban planning.


    Wasn't Joe an urban planner or some other similar kind of government-paid anti-property busybody?

  • ||

    Yes and he would make claims that he cut regulations and lowered the cost of housing.

    He also claimed that the hurdles to development and affordable housing were caused by the public and not by urban planners who were the "good guys" fighting the good fight.

    I have my doubts about those claims, and the prices of homes in smart growth regions compared to regions without them supports my doubts.

  • EDG reppin' LBC||

    If you are raising chickens, you want to keep a bunch of hens. You only need one (very lucky!) good rooster.

  • Hens||

    Actually, we prefer a bad rooster.

  • Art-P.O.G.||

    ^^^This is excellent.

  • Mainer||

    Bad ? or Naughty ?

  • GSL||

    The worst thing about this story is the absolute stonewalling from Antonovich on why he's sent the stormtroopers out there. It would be one thing if he just answered the questions and described his evil plan to the public. With all the conspiracy theories flying around, not taking the time to shoot them down almost makes me wonder if his real plan is something so unimaginably evil it wouldn't even occur to me as a possibility.

  • Emperor Wears No Clothes||

    Chinatown!

  • Deep Throat||

    ...This program helps utilities meet their Renewable Portfolio Standards. Pristine Sun has project funding available and is looking for space in California and Hawaii to construct and operate FIT renewable power systems. The owner/lessor receives annual lease payments that start after the system is producing power for a 20 year term. Small FIT projects (up to 3 MW) typically take about 9-12+ months to become operational and larger systems take longer. FIT projects utilize primarily PV Solar equipment.

    Land in California must be at least 3 acres of unshaded space in PG&E, SCE or SDGE utility service territory. Land in Hawaii must be at least 1 acre of unshaded space in HECO, HELCO or MECO utility service territory up to a system size of 250kW. The project can be a combination of rooftop, land space and/or parking lot space. New utility territories are being added as Feed-In-Tariff programs become available from utilities. For a list of Pristine Sun's executed Feed-In-Tariff contracts with PG&E, visit their website here.

  • ||

    urban theorist

    *makes sign of cross*

  • fish||

    “There are two forces at work: One is the effort to re-engineer people into wards of the state. The other is urban land interests who want to force people to live in ways they don’t want to live.”

    Gee can't imagine our political betters trying to do anything like this.

  • Just an Engineer||

    Don't you know we have a surplus of morons with college degrees that need white color jobs (ie professionals trained in aesthetics and urban issues).

  • ||

    Just an Engineer

    You are either some other type of engineer or you are a civil engineer and severely deluded to think you are not a major source of the problem.

  • ||

    ooh, do tell

  • Colonel_Angus||

    Fuck the ASCE.

  • Paul||

    “design review boards, staffed by professionals trained in aesthetics and urban issues and able to influence planning and preservation decisions.”

    Should we start Godwin-ing right now or should we wait until her vision comes to pass?

  • ||

    I remember when the review board in San Francisco wouldn't let Prada build their Rem Koolhaus designed store. That's the kind of BS I expect.

  • fish||

    They might have let it slide if only it was bird friendly!

  • Skr||

    Or looked like a pointy wedding cake.

  • ||

    Reminds me of a similar stories about farmers evicted for the building of the Mirabel Airport near Montreal in the early 1970s http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Montréal-Mirabel_International_Airport
    or the Poletown area in Detroit in the 1980s.
    http://www.detroityes.com/mb/s.....0-Poletown

  • Sasha||

    I love you, REASON - but you know you are really mischaracterizing the Antelope Valley's primary population. There are nearly a half-million people here with two good sized cities! Sure, there are areas that look like the Wild West around the edges, but Zoning exists because there is a certain need for it in denser populations. While I agree that it is sometimes overzealous and often unevenly enforced, I appreciate the fact that my neighbor can't keep a rooster 30' away from my bedroom window in a suburban neighborhood. There's plenty of rural property up here for those that want to do that – primarily in unincorporated Los Angeles County, and not in the cities. I’m a lifetime resident here, and the Palmdale you are illustrating doesn’t resemble what I see every day.

  • ||

    Zoning exists because there is a certain need for it in denser populations.

    BULLSHIT. Zoning exists to provide a revenue stream for corrupt local officials. It has never had any other purpose.

    -jcr

  • ||

    I think in an area that has developed up into a dense residential area can afford to amend its land use restrictions to disallow someone turning a 5000 sq-foot plot into a mini-farm.

  • Colonel_Angus||

    "I appreciate the fact that my neighbor can't keep a rooster 30' away from my bedroom window in a suburban neighborhood"

    Then pay your neighbor not to do so.

  • ||

    Wait a minute- you want people to have to pay others not to invade their space with noise? I'm pretty sure that's not libertarian, or free market. It's extortion.

  • Skr||

    I live 2 minutes from downtown LA and my next door neighbors have a rooster. Since the coons got the other two, it hasn't been a huge deal. We even sleep with the windows open.

  • ||

    raaaaacist! ?

  • michael||

    My neighbors have children.

    There oughtta be a law.

  • ||

    "Urban planning"? What's that, the latest euphemism for keeping the poor people away from where the liberals life?

    -jcr

  • ||

    One would hope that, when writing about a place, one would at least try to get some of the basic facts correct...

    "Northeast Los Angeles County is a flat desert of cacti and tumbleweeds..."

    Cactus in the Antelope Valley? You're joking. Sagebrush? yes; Joshua trees? certainly; creosote? in profusion in many spots; tumbleweeds? in a few scattered locations, and those mostly in San Bernardino or Kern Counties; cactus? not a chance, except high on a few mountain slopes, and in the yards of many houses. Cactus is *not* a major player in the native flora of the Mojave Desert, despite a century of movies and TV that would have us believe otherwise.

    As for the people of the AV, you make some good points, but even alluding to them as Angelenos will get the very people who you are defending more than a little ticked off. *I* am an Angeleno: raised in the urban south County, and past employee of the City of Los Angeles. I am a frequent visitor to the AV, as I love the Mojave Desert, but would never consider myself an Antelope. Don't insult Antelopes by calling them Angelenos.

    Lastly, calling Palmdale a half-horse town would be funny if it weren't for the fact that the largest up-scale shopping center in the AV is in Palmdale, that almost all of the up-scale housing in the AV is in the hills on the south side of Palmdale, and that it is growing at a faster rate than Lancaster, which had only a few thousand more people in it at the 2010 Census. At its current rate of growth, it will pass Santa Clarita before the 2020 Census, to become the third-largest city in Los Angeles County,

    Bottom line: would it have been too much to ask to have some do a little fact-checking on this article?

  • Hate Potion Number Nine||

    Fact checking? Here? Given the fact that one of their most revered patron saints is a Leninist Socialist realist masquerading as a crusader for freedom, I think fact checking is a little too advanced here.

  • ||

    Considering that Tim lives in the neighborhood, I have to assume that he was engaging in a bit of hyperbole with regard to the cacti.

    The angelenos bit was a quote from a university professor & I understood it to set a tone for the Los Angeles area.

    You should feel free to rag on TC for making artistic license, and perhaps even for using a quote improperly to support a point that the quote does not necessarily support. Neither of these has anything to do with fact checking.

  • michael||

  • Emperor Wears No Clothes||

    So it takes armed forces to overcome a rooster now?

  • ||

    mostly Stephen Seagal.

  • Tracy||

    Lastly, calling Palmdale a half-horse town would be funny if it weren't for the fact that the largest up-scale shopping center in the AV is in Palmdale, that almost all of the up-scale housing in the AV is in the hills on the south side of Palmdale, and that it is growing at a faster rate than Lancaster, which had only a few thousand more people in it at the 2010 Census. At its current rate of growth, it will pass Santa Clarita before the 2020 Census, to become the third-largest city in Los Angeles County.
    http://www.aimengcrystal.com

  • ||

    Zoning has literally no actual, substantial use, and is utterly unjustifiable. You don't tell people what they can and can't do with their property. Fuck off, slavers, as somebody said once (forgot who).

  • ||

    Zoning, it was said, has no actual substantial use.
    Including the time when my father (on the zoning board for Bannock County in Idaho) told a would-be gravel pit operator that he could not sell a bunch of house lots, advertising "scenic views", and then turn around, after selling the lots, and build a giant gravel pit downslope from the homes.
    Or, in a society that, whether libertarians like it or not, will not accept emergency services not responding, not allowing people to site homes on known, frequent flood plains. Remember a story here in Reason about a fire department that did not put out a fire because the people didn't pay the fire protection tab? The alternative to not allowing the houses on the flood plain is allowing the houses to be built, and then having the Army Corps of Engineers spend millions of dollars building a levee system, to the detriment of the environment and the cities tax rates, all so somebody can exercise their "property rights." Yes, that happened in Pocatello, before my father decided to volunteer for the zoning board. (He is not paid for his time. He does it out of a sense of civic duty.)
    Or, how about requiring that housing built in the downslope area of the municipal dump pay to have municipal water piped in rather than allowing them to get drinking water from wells?
    I will be the first to say that government can be idiotic, but don't make extreme statements about zoning laws being slavery, without some understanding about what zoning boards do.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement