Will Houston Succumb?


The familiar specter of zoning is haunting Houston once again, and this time it just might materialize.

The only major city in the nation without zoning, Houston has thrived by using private alternatives to government land-use control that allow market forces to work more effectively. But in recent months a vocal coalition of academics, special interests, and public officials (including several city council members) has been pushing zoning as a modern necessity. The Houston Post has endorsed the movement, arguing that zoning is needed to regulate the city's rapid growth.

The pro-zoning forces, led by city council member Jim Greenwood and University of Houston law professor John Mixon, say restrictive covenants-stipulations inserted into deeds by developers or groups of property owners—have failed adequately to control undesirable land uses.

Greenwood, who has formed an ad hoc committee to study the issue, complains about "the proliferation of billboards, sexually oriented businesses, 'adult' bookstores, halfway houses, skyscrapers peeking into neighborhood backyards, cut-through traffic, cantinas, and dilapidated, dangerous buildings."

Zoning opponents argue that many such problems are either illusory or can be solved without zoning. Although some older covenants have expired, they can be reimposed by agreement among residents. Renewal of modern deed restrictions is automatic unless a large majority of property owners in the subdivision votes against it. Real-estate broker Barry Klein adds that the market reflects the risk of unwanted development: Homes outside or on the borders of protected subdivisions cost less.

A more serious problem is the city's failure consistently to enforce restrictive covenants. With only one attorney assigned to such cases full-time, the city limits its suits to violations involving conversions from residential to commercial use. Otherwise, neighborhood associations must bring their own suits, which may involve hefty legal fees. In addition to better enforcement of deed restrictions, Klein says more vigorous use of nuisance laws would address many of the complaints behind the zoning movement.

To judge by newspaper coverage of the issue, it's only a matter of time before Houston adopts zoning.

But University of San Diego law professor Bernard Siegan, author of the classic Houston study Land Use Without Zoning, says the key test would be a referendum. "The people who don't like zoning don't scream about it in the newspapers."

Polls say a majority of residents favor zoning. But they said the same thing in 1962, the last time voters rejected it.