By Seth Grossman, Political Columnist
Last week, my photo was on the front page of our daily newspaper.? The?caption misquoted me as saying we needed more zoning regulations–something?I never said.
The story was about a bus tour for Somers Point residents to advise? our?city’s “expert” on urban planning what new zoning laws we? thought would?make our town better.
When the photo was taken, we were stopped on Route 9.? The empty Chi-Chi’s/Schooner’s/ Oriental Buffet building was on one side-the? closed Burger King?was on the other.??? I was explaining that these buildings, like many on?Route 9,? were empty far too long, because our zoning laws are out of touch?with reality.
Most people know that every town in New Jersey has its own zoning codes.?These laws divide each town into different zones, where only certain?buildings and businesses are permitted in each particular zone.?? They also?decide details like the maximum height and width of each building,? the?minimum distance between the building and each property line, the number of?parking spaces,? storm drains, etc.
But very few people know when or why we got these zoning laws in the first?place.?? Or how unfair, expensive, corrupting, and just plain ridiculous?most of them are.
We didn’t have any zoning laws in most New Jersey towns until just 50 or 60?years ago-long after most buildings and businesses were already in place?without any zoning.?? Because of this, most buildings and business? are in?violation of current zoning codes.??? They are tolerated as? “grandfathered”?or “non-conforming” uses.? But these buildings and businesses? can’t be?expanded or improved without very expensive and uncertain “variances” from?highly political zoning and planning boards.
New York adopted America’s? first zoning law in 1916 for a worthwhile?purpose-so that newly built skyscrapers would allow at least some sunlight?to reach the sidewalks.???? But? most zoning laws that came afterwards were?blatant abuses of government power.
Uptown hotel owners in Atlantic City rammed through this area’s first zoning?law in 1929 to stop a new bridge, and competing hotels from being built?downbeach near Ventnor.??? Many suburban towns adopted their first zoning?laws in the 1950’s to keep out blacks, poor people and other “riffraff” from?the cities.?? Local politicians of both parties in almost every town then?eagerly adopted zoning laws that were so restrictive, that almost every?building and business was in violation of something.??? This let them reward?builders and businesses who “pay to play”.?? And punish anyone who?threatened their power in any way.
That is why so many people who privately complain about bad politicians say?nothing in public.? In fact, they often contribute to the very politicians?they complain about-just? like in third world countries.
Politicians say these zoning laws protect us from greedy developers.?? But?because politicians can re-write zoning laws anytime they want– or create?special “redevelopment zones” anywhere for? people with enough cash and?political clout-most zoning laws do little but drive up the cost of housing?and everything else in New Jersey.
State law requires every town to re-do its zoning laws every ten years-which?is why Somers Point is now holding various events, like the bus tour, to?suggest zoning changes.
On the bus,? I argued for fewer zoning laws, and laws that conform to the?real world.?? Specifically, I noted that almost every sign that now exists?on every business on Shore Road and New Road in Somers Point does not comply?with the zoning law.??? The current zoning law also puts most businesses in?violation of other rules concerning setbacks, parking, and drainage.
Liberty creates prosperity.?? Where there is liberty, the law applies?equally to everyone.??? Zoning laws that force new businesses to follow?rules that nobody else has to follow are wrong-and bad for business.
Everyone on the bus tour agreed that the big empty building that once was?the Chi-Chi’s, then the Schooner, then the Oriental Buffet Restaurant is an?eyesore.???? It is simply too big to succeed as a restaurant these days.?But because the building is “grandfathered” in as a restaurant, the owners?can’t use the building for anything else– unless they spend a fortune on?construction, permits, and zoning variances.??? It is the same story for?many other empty buildings.
Why not change and simplify zoning laws so that owners can quickly and?cheaply change buildings from one commercial use to another as market?conditions change?
Reprinted from May 10, 2011 Current-Gazette Newspapers of Atlantic and Cape May Counties.?Image source – http://uhelgato.com/wp-content/uploads/zoning-021.jpg