A Trial of Zoning

A recent Wall Street Journal op ed combines two of my favorite topics: Franz Kafka’s The Trial  and the inefficiencies of zoning. Roger Kimball explains the roadblocks he has faced in trying to repair his home after it was damaged in Hurricane Sandy. He writes:

It wasn’t until the workmen we hired had ripped apart most of the first floor that the phrase “building permit” first wafted past us. Turns out we needed one. “What, to repair our own house we need a building permit?”

Of course.

Before you could get a building permit, however, you had to be approved by the Zoning Authority. And Zoning—citing FEMA regulations—would force you to bring the house “up to code,” which in many cases meant elevating the house by several feet. Now, elevating your house is very expensive and time consuming—not because of the actual raising, which takes just a day or two, but because of the required permits.

Disaster rebuilding efforts highlight the impediments that bureaucracies create for economic development, but they are far from the only time that land use regulations create kafkaesque obstacles for property owners. In The High Cost of Free ParkingDonald Shoup explains that parking requirements can create a similar effect.

When a business owner goes out of business and wants to sell his property, it’s likely that the next owner will want to operate a different type of business in the location or that parking requirements will have changed since the previous owner received a certificate of occupancy. If this new business happens to face a higher parking requirement (and the determination of parking requirements often defies reason), repurposing the building will likely be impossible, and regulations lead existing neighborhoods into blight. These bureaucratic obstacles to redevelopment not only frustrate entrepreneurs and property owners, but fuels suburbanization and urban decline.


  • WNYPlanner

    That is why the variance was created.

  • http://offsettingbehaviour.blogspot.com/ Eric Crampton

    Same sorts of problems in post-earthquake Christchurch. Urban planning regulations of this sort embed fragility into the system and make it awfully hard for communities to rebuild in the event of disaster. See here, for example. http://www.offsettingbehaviour.blogspot.co.nz/2013/01/embedded-fragility.html

  • Scott

    As a planner who is called upon to regulate such things as parking and building height, I would suggest an alternative conclusion to the one you make. The problem you face isn’t one of zoning, per se, but one of bureaucracy. Dealing with disaster recovery projects (or even more mundane problems such as the scenario mentioned when a new business wants to move into an under-parked building) can be handled in any number of different ways. As a planner who strives to minimize governmental intervention in private business as much as possible (admittedly a minority approach among planners), I have seen and personally battled against the type of bureaucracy which you describe here. It should always be the goal of the governmental agency to assist the business or property owner to find solutions to the problems rather than to throw up obstacles to those solutions. Larger organizations, which have more anonymity among their employees and less direct accountability, are generally more bureaucratic in my experience, more likely to stress the letter rather than the spirit of the law, and therefore more likely to give you an experience associated with dystopian literature. (I prefer to think of these as Orwellian rather than as Kafkaesque.)

    It’s the singer, not the song! The same zoning regulations, when administered by a responsive, solution oriented planner, can result in a much different (and even pleasant) experience.

  • SPZ2

    The conflict between the revised flood elevation requirement and zoning height limitations was resolved by an executive order issued January 31st suspending zoning height limits for buildings damaged in the hurricane:


    It was issued immediately after FEMA released revised flood elevation maps for NYC that are necessary for a homeowner to actually know how high they will have to raise their home. Until then they wouldn’t have had the information necessary to undertake the project anyway. So I guess you could draw the conclusion the system works.

    As far as your example of a business wishing parking requirements didn’t exist, I’m not sure how to respond except to point out that regulations happen to have benefits, as well as costs.

  • hcat

    Every act of construction requires a separate permit. The permit is not just for the house, but for the act of construction. At least that’s how I understand it. But it’s sort of like (going back to the days when premarital abstinence was expected, as Christians still do) having to get a new marriage certificate every time you have sex.