Janak Bansal Awoke One Morning From Uneasy American Dreams

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Via commenter Vynnie comes the story of Janak and Vinod Bansal, whose plans to build a dream home are being stymied by a county planning board who regard the thing as just too darn big:

But there was nothing in the county's code books that specifically outlawed such opulence. The proposed home's 35-foot height was just within one of the county's few specific limitations for hillside homes.

The Bansal's dream home quickly became mired in bureaucratic quicksand as county planners tried to tone down the home without the benefit of being able to enforce specific guidelines. They recommended lowering the height to 25 feet or tucking the home behind a ridge to reduce its visibility. The Bansals balked and appealed to the board of supervisors.

Now, on the one hand, I understand why you might want to have rules like this: I expect I'd be peeved if I put up a house on a plot where the view was a big part of the value of the property, only to have it blocked out by some fresh mansion. As Coase teaches us, the best way to handle those situations is to have viewshed rights clearly allocated and let the parties negotiate an efficient outcome, but in light of transaction costs some kind of zoning rules might be a second-best solution in some situations. [ADDENDUM: Commenter joe points out that this is really a third best; better to have broader criteria that owners decide how precisely to satisfy.] But in that case, you want zoning rules, not a situation where people make elaborate plans within the constraints of what they think are clear-cut rules, only to have a battery of new restrictions slapped on them ex post. The couple are now trying to sell their land, but even in a favorable real estate market, they're now trying to unload property that's evidently got some de facto easments on it they weren't aware of when they bought it.

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  1. “but in light of transaction costs some kind of zoning rules might be a second-best solution in some situations. But in that case, you want zoning rules, not a situation where people make elaborate plans within the constraints of what they think are clear-cut rules, only to have a battery of new restrictions slapped on them ex post.”

    Actually, strict rules (25 foot height, such and such a setback) are a third best solution. Setting performance criteria (shall not block the view from houses on adjoining property, shall not protrude above the ridgeline) and letting the owner/develop figure out the best way to achieve them are better.

  2. Whatever the sitch was when the Bansal’s bought their land, now that this story has been published, some things are clear:

    (1) the county planning board has allocated viewshed rights to themselves; and

    (2) they are negotiable on a case by case basis.

    The only problem here is that the parties who enjoy viewshed rights aren’t really involved in the negotiations. I suppose one could argue, though, that the county is in a *better* position to negotiate all viewshed transaction because its tax base depends upon the aggreagate value of a lot of properties with a lot of viewsheds, so the county would be able to prioritize and rank tha value of viewsheds (and of new construction) in a more organized way (for better or worse).

  3. I’m going to commit heresy and agree (to a point) with joe. Yes, yes, I know, ideally all of these things would be handled by private agreements, yadda yadda yadda. Private communities with thick rulebooks and strict homeowners’ associations should be right up your alley, then.

    But in places where this is handled by law, it’s certainly less intrusive to say “Do what you want as long as you don’t produce any of the following outcomes” rather than “Here’s how you do it.”

    And yes, I know, what joe’s advocating is still unacceptable, yadda yadda yadda. I’m merely comparing two ways of doing things, and suggesting that joe’s approach is the lesser evil.

  4. My previous answer assumes that viewshed property owners can’t sue, after the county board has given its permission.

    If the viewshed-blocked property owner could turn around and sue the Bansals, then my previous answer is partially correct, but multiple transactions would be required to get the rights, even more than if the county stayed out of things entirely.

  5. Viewshed? I had to google to make sure that wasn’t a made up word. Conjures up visions of all the view flowing downhill into the ground, where it pools in a view-quifer. Or to a river, where we build a dam to preserve the view in a view-sivoire, so we have some saved up when there is a view-drought. I don’t like the term, because it gives people the impression that, like water, it’s a quasi-public resource deserving of regulation.

    Now, on the one hand, I understand why you might want to have rules like this: I expect I’d be peeved if I put up a house on a plot where the view was a big part of the value of the property, only to have it blocked out by some fresh mansion.

    Why? Surely you knew that might happen? The last two houses my parents owned are typical hill-on-edge-of-town-overlooking-fields situations. They were not so naive to think that there wouldn’t be another subdivision behind them in 10 years. Their plan was to buy the lot when it came up for sale. The *best* solution is to defend your own view with your own money, not to get gov’t to defend it for you.

  6. Goddamit, forgot to change name back from joke post. The priests would not approve.

  7. joe,

    Who decides that the performance criteria are met?

  8. jc,

    Either Building Commissioner when you apply for your building permit, or the zoning board/planning board/city council/county commission when you apply for a land use permit.

    It’s still government regulation; it’s just a different way to do it.

  9. If I Dowdify thoreau’s comment a bit, I can get on board with it:

    I’m merely comparing two ways of doing things, and suggesting that joe’s approach is . . . evil.

    Kidding!

  10. Which sorta reminds me of the supposed regulations in Japanese cities mandating “sun time” for each apartment (since most places don’t have dryers.) When apartment hunting in Tokyo I quickly realized that such regulations held only at the point the original apartment was put up…(enough times where the apartment looked out into the side of the next building 15 ft away.)

  11. I’d almost kind of venture to say that joe’s way might be worse – you’re still at the mercy of some board (or board member) to determine whether or not you qualified for their (at times deliberately vague) guidelines. At least when you have a rigid set of codes, you know for sure whether you met the codes and can prove whether you met it or not. Theres less chance for politicization of your development project.

    There are other things out there like form based zoning which do most of the definition for landowners as far as the form of any potential development. Now whether that may or may not be better than choices 1, 2 or 3 as mentioned.. who knows.

  12. But if the view from an adjacent property is truly part of the value of that estate, why shouldn’t that owner have to purchase an easement from the owner of the property that could block their view?

  13. joe,

    Sorry, my question should have been who and HOW.

    If you have a law that says “25 foot height maximum” it doesn’t take any time in interpreting it, there’s no time spent negotiating, and you have a solid parameter you can design with.

    If you leave the criteria broad, you take away a lot of the predictability of what will and will not pass the test. Evaluating the proposals like that takes more time and can really jack up the costs. Someone has to determine what is the ridgeline and what isn’t, someone has to determine whether “the view” is going to be blocked or not. In the case of a hillside home, you could be blocking a neighbor’s view simply because he decided to build at a height far below the maximum, which becomes a de facto strict height requirement. And what do you do if two adjoinging properties are being developed at the same time?

    I’m not saying your way is less valid, I’m just saying there’s no “better” or “best” way to do regulations.

  14. Agreed, jc, different tools for different jobs.

  15. Regulated industries are constantly whipsawing between wanting certainty and clarity (and thus arbitrariness), and wanting flexibility (and thus ceding discretion to the prosecutor).

    Its a bitch.

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