Casaubon's Book

Taming the Zoning Monster

For the last several years I’ve been working on the invention of “Urban and Suburban Right-to-Farm Laws” and have had some notable successes including a legal conference on the idea and a few municipalities that have implemented them. This is one of the reasons I think this is so incredibly important – zoning presumptions simply can’t be allowed to prevent people from using less and meeting their own needs.

Over the last 50 years, food and zoning laws have worked to minimize subsistence activities in populated areas. Not only have we lost the culture of subsistence, but we’ve instituted legal requirements that make it almost impossible for many people to engage in simple subsistence activities that cut their energy use, reduce their ecological impact, improve their food security and improve their communities. In some cases, these laws were instituted for fairly good reasons, in many cases, for bad ones that associate such activities with poverty.

Scratch most of the reasons for these things both for zoning laws and HOA policies, and you’ll find class issues under their surface in the name of “property values.” There are ostensible reasons for these things, but generally speaking, they derive from old senses of what constituted wealth They stem from the notion that what constituted wealth was essentially having things that don’t do anything of economic value, but show that you can afford not to do for yourself.

It is important to remember that many things we think are ugly because of their class associations are not inherently ugly – that is, a lush garden is not inherently more ugly than a lawn (quite the contrary), nor are colorful clothes on a line inherently unattractive. What we find beautiful has to do with our culture and our training, otherwise how could anyone have ever found a 800K McMansion beautiful?

Among the basic subsistence activities consistently legislated against by towns, cities and housing developments are:

1. Clotheslines instead of dryers. Reason: Looks poor. Might suggest you can’t afford a dryer. Plus, you might see underwear that isn’t your own. This is a major cause of sin.

2. No livestock, but large pets are acceptable. Reason: Ostensible reasons are health based, a few even broadly grounded in fact, They ignore, however, that carnivore manures are almost certainly more dangerous than any other livestock manure, and health issues are at least as prevalent from pets. The same is true of considerations of size, noise, etc… – barking dogs the size of ponies are permitted while three quiet hens are not. The real reason is that pets are broadly a sign of affluence, since they cost us money, while livestock are a sign of poverty, because they provide economic benefits.

3. No front yard gardens. Reason: The lawn is a sign of affluence – you have money, leisure and water enough to have a chunk of land, however tiny, that doesn’t produce anything.. It creates in many neighborhoods a seemingly contiguous but basically sterile, often chemically toxic and seeming “public” greenspace that is actually privatized and not very green. Gardens, on the other hand, have dirty wildlife and bugs in them, and might grow food, which is bad because it implies you can’t afford it – even if you can’t.

4. No rainwater collection. Reason: This is mostly in dry places in the Southwest, for fear that the tiny amount of available rainwater might not reach people who can’t afford to pay for it, or strangely believe that water that lands on their roof might belong to them, and who would like to have gardens anyway. A few other municipalities do it for fear of west nile disease because they seem never to have heard of screens or mosquito dunks. Oh, and barrels look like you can’t afford to water your lawn with sprinklers, even when it is raining. While western riparian water rights are an issue, research has shown over and over again that rainbarrels increase net water access and that lost water in storm surge that could have been collected in rainbarrels is a net gain. Fortunately, many cities are finally getting over this one.

5. No commerce that isn’t white collar. Reason – Class. Telecommuters who can make money out of their homes all they want, or upscale white collar professionals with home offices are generally permitted in residential zoning.. This means people who want to sell food, do hair, fix things, cannot hang a discrete sign selling their biscuits or offerin their services. This is deemed ugly and bad – and it is a visible reminder that people might not have enough money to keep warm burning it, and might need to earn some.

Now I realize I’m being a little bit unkind. People have real concerns – no one should have a 200 hog pig farm move in next door in a suburban neighborhood, or a junkyard on their block. But that’s not what’s at issue here – hanging the laundry is not a slippery slope to your neighbor building a quarry or running a whorehouse. It is perfectly possible to permit all these activities and have a beautiful, pleasant family neighborhood.

We can see the fundamental injustice of this in laws that outlaw even tasteful gardens or small tasteful signs that say “eggs” on them. A town that tries to keep its “traditional” “colonial” “historic” or “small town” feel without actually allowing any of the characteristics of traditional, colonial, historic or small town life is creating a sterile Disneyland as well as destroying long term environmental, economic and food security.

The reality is that clothes on the line aren’t empirically ugly. Neighborhood cats carry more diseases than backyard poultry. If you can put a political sign on your lawn, you should be able to put a sign that says “fresh baked goods” on it – hell, food security is political!

That means that these laws can’t be allowed to stand. And that means that one of the first things you or your community, your transition group or your neighbors can do is to push to change your zoning laws or your neighborhood covenants. Rather than changing them one by one, the idea of scale-appropriate “right to farm” laws for cities and suburbs can help work through this huge project of enabling us to get what we need in place for the future.

That means you need to get involved. Go to the town meetings. Get to know you zoning board. Talk to your neighbors. Strategize – can you find some people who want chickens to get together with? Find out what the objections are and address them – if people are afraid of bird flu, remind them that bird flu is largely a problem of industrial production. If people think that lawns are beautiful and food gardens are ugly, show them otherwise. Show them that other towns are doing it – remind them that Seattle allows chickens and Charlottesville VA allows miniature goats, and civil unrest or collapse of property values is not associated with either.

If the law won’t help you, consider whether you are willing to consider civil disobedience. Unjust laws need to be overturned – you don’t have to go to jail to be Thoreau, sometimes you just need to plant some kale. But before you do that, do know the price you may have to pay – make sure you are willing to pay it. Someone with courage who is willing to pay a price may have to go first – and if you have the willingness to be the one to fight that battle, well, all honor to you.

The reality is that some of the zoning restrictions and covenants will fade as times get tougher, but we really can’t afford to wait for things to be really bad to get our chickens – because it will likely to be harder to come by diverse stock then. We can’t wait to grow food until we’re already hungry. We can’t wait to collect water until our well is dry. It is worth fighting these battles right now – particularly since many of them truly are rooted in ugly prejudice against the poor, and rejection of an agrarian past we need to reclaim.

Most Americans couldn’t get much more separate from our roots, so it is sort of silly to spend time showing that we’re not from our agrarian past – we’ve noticed. Bit by bit, people are bringing clotheslines and front yard gardens back, and making them cool again. But we can’t wait for that to happen – because the reality is that many of us will be poor, and the utility of these activities will be needed to soften our poverty.

We can’t wait until everyone sees a garden full of food as beautiful and lush. Instead, we’ve got to make sure that even those who still think it looks old fashioned and dirty don’t get to control something so basic as our future anymore.

Comments

  1. #1 Nightengale
    February 29, 2012

    Thank you for this post, this is an issue I deal with in my work and in my home life. I live in a very small (population 150-ish), rural Midwestern town, on a ranch that was incorporated into city limits by a city council a decade or so back. I find that this issue is even more blown out of proportion in these small rural areas as the residents are seemingly afraid to look “rural”; as the connotations of rural seem to imply poverty, or backwardness. The town I live in will not even consider allowing backyard chickens and my fertile, rich pasture goes unused….. We could easily raise some small breeds of goats, a few chickens, and maybe a heritage breed of pig or two…. without making more noise than the neighbors dogs, or stinking as much as the agricultural fields that border the town when manure is being spread on them (well managed pastured animals and pastures actually don’t stink at all)…. It is ironic because there is a meat locker not two blocks from my house and an industrial, very large grain elevator with three rail lines even closer… But heaven forbid we get a couple of chickens, or a pig that I could literally walk to the locker when the time was right…. My job is to work to make local food systems a reality in my foodshed, zoning ordinances are changing, but mostly in the large urban and suburban areas, while the rural, small towns in an effort not to appear rustic, slide farther and farther behind. Unwilling to see that their ultimate demise as towns will hinge on these issues, they stubbornly cling to outmoded thinking that a large industrial development does more for their town than small local enterprises. We have no grocery store, have high unemployment, and very high rates of food insecurity – heaven forbid we do something to fix that. Instead we will wait for some big corporation to come in and save us…just because they haven’t yet doesn’t mean they won’t….. In the meantime our children go to bed hungry, our elderly suffer from neglect, the school closes and the town withers and decays. But for goodness sake, NO CHICKENS!

  2. #2 Daniel J. Andrews
    February 29, 2012

    Bravo! Well said. Our premier, in a rare moment of sanity, backed a change to by-laws so people could hang their laundry outside rather than forcing them to use the dryer.

    I won’t start ranting about barking dogs in backyards and the stink of their poop on public trails as the snow melts and reveals all the mess lazy dog owners didn’t pick up….

  3. #3 Ruben
    February 29, 2012

    My city, Victoria BC, calls itself The City of Gardens. They mean flower gardens.

    Along with the right to farm goes right to light laws. These are needed for gardens, but also for daylighting buildings and collecting solar energy.

    Victoria is built on a razed Garry Oak meadow and is awfully in love with its giant street trees. Right to light is not going to come easily.

    Exclusionary zoning is the practice of maintaining class and race barriers. Not zoning, but I think it was Jane Jacobs that told the story of bridges in a New York park being built too low for buses to pass under. Black people rode buses, so that kept the park white.

  4. #4 Diane
    February 29, 2012

    My town will be discussing “a zoning ordinance for the keeping of livestock” next week at a Planning Commission meeting. Currently one must request a permit for any animals other than pets. I would like to speak about other towns that have regulations that are successful in placating opponents while allowing useful stocking levels. How many chickens? No roosters? Other small livestock? Bees? The town is part village, part suburban and part rural. I’d really appreciate any relevant links or experiences.

  5. #5 Kathie
    February 29, 2012

    In 2008 Pennsylvania passed House Bill 239 Act 34 that prohibits anyone owning private property from using the water that comes from a well or spring!! It also mandates that home owners within 150 feet of a municipal water line, purchase fluorinated/chlorinated water. This is in direct violation of the Riparian Doctrine. No one in Harrisburg seems to care that they took away a basic right that came over on the Mayflower!! If you don’t connect to the city water, they fine and bill you and eventually put a lien against your house!! Now what do you think about that??

  6. #6 Peter
    February 29, 2012

    I live in Scotland, in the suburbs outside of Glasgow, and things are far less restrictive here.

    I regularly dry my clothes outside when the weather permits, and hang it up inside the rest of the time. I built sets of shelves in my garden holding dozens of aquariums for newts and salamanders, with the aim of making a business out of breeding them, and instead of being horrified, a couple of the neighbours brought their kids around to have a look.

    There are plum trees, apples trees, blackcurrant bushes, gooseberry bushes, tayberries, raspberries and other things all through the garden. There are bird feeders hung on the trees in the front garden, mice can be seen scurrying around in the evening, collecting the fallen seed and foxes regularly pass through on their nightly patrols.

    I don’t have so much as a postage stamp of lawn anywhere, the local council encourages people to buy plastic compost bins for their compostable waste and there are no restrictions on rainwater collection.

    My garden is a bit more overgrown than most, but it doesn’t stand out as particularly unusual here. People just do what they want with their gardens, and other people mind their own business as long as it’s not creating excessive noise or foul smells or whatever, and even there, people err on the side of tolerance.

    The idea of someone telling me that I can’t grow food, dry clothes or breed amphibians in my garden is quite strange to me, and it’s nice that everyone’s garden is different, even if it means that there’s an occasional garden that’s full of weeds and has a rusted out car sitting on cracked concrete behind a scraggly hedge.

  7. #7 sealander
    February 29, 2012

    Front yard gardens, home businesses, water barrels, private wells, small livestock and hanging your knickers out in the breeze are all legal here in Christchurch, New Zealand. It’s the legal but sometimes unwelcome suburban brothels that people get uptight about 
    As far as larger livestock go, I get the impression that if you have enough space for them and the neighbors don’t mind, then you can get away with it – the council largely concerns itself with regulating dogs, although I do recall a story where Animal Control officers were asked to remove an ostrich from a backyard. I bet they’re a lot harder to catch than a chicken. For beehives you do have to register them with a national authority and have them inspected to assist in disease control.
    After the earthquakes destroyed much of our infrastructure, people with working wells in urban areas put in taps that went out to the street to supply clean water for their local community. Some of them are still in use as people prefer the taste of the water.

  8. #8 Nicole
    February 29, 2012

    @Dianne – You may want to start with rabbits, if you have to pick your battles. They don’t have a negative stigma nor inspire fear, probably because so many people don’t eat them and some people keep them as pets.

    I don’t personally have zoning troubles but I do live in a suburb, sort of. I want chickens someday — really I want goats but don’t have enough room and have too many predators — but part of being a good neighbor is not making mine uncomfortable. So I am turning up the heat slowly, and paying careful attention to making everything I do aesthetically pleasing as well as functional. I keep my property as clean and well cared for as you would a formal garden. Curiously, it turns out to be much less work to keep things neat and clean than to let stuff pile up into big projects.

    My neighbors’ reaction to the low tunnels, orchard, rainwater system, edible landscaping and other projects has so far been curiosity and fascination and enjoyment of the extra produce. My hope is to lead by example, but showing that food production doesn’t have to be ugly.

  9. #9 Lisa in MN
    February 29, 2012

    Our mid-sized town in southern MN (population 30,000-ish) has made it impossible to keep chickens or other small livestock while the major metropolitan areas of Minneapolis and St. Paul (a little over an hour north of us) are encouraging urban farming with initiatives and good laws. And here we sit the biggest town within a county with the dubous honor of having the 2nd highest poverty rate among children in the state. There is a huge disconnect.

    Two years ago, we launched a many month educational campaign and went through the process to change the existing city ordinance. What was sadly fascinating was seeing people really, really ANGRY about the issue of anyone wanting to keep hens. I was honestly not expecting it. However, as the City Council vote neared, the real issues came to light. Folks speaking against hens at the council meetings started to talk about “those people…”

    And then I understood.

    It was never about a few chickens kept in a backyard; it was about irrational fear of the “other.” I was so sad for all of us that day – Afraid to appear “too rural” (read: poor, backward, whatever) and afraid of our newest Americans who come from agrarian cultures. Sadly, racist and classist fears won.

    We haven’t yet taken up the issue again since the make up of the City Council has changed and those newly elected have come out STRONGLY against keeping chickens.

    So far front yard gardens and clothes lines are okay so we utilize both with gusto!

  10. #10 Guest
    February 29, 2012

    I would much rather my neighbors had chickens or goats than dogs. Dogs bark loudly, poop in my front yard (my toddler has stepped in a fresh pile more than once), and sometimes bite people, especially kids. I would be all for outlawing dogs and allowing some tame farm animals.

  11. #11 Bethg
    February 29, 2012

    This makes me glad to live in a working class neighborhood in central VA. I have two raised vegetable beds in my front yard. One is dedicated to asparagus, the other has whatever vegetables mixed with flowers that I like. I have fruit trees in back with more vegetable gardens and many of us hang out our laundry when the weather allows. As long as I keep the hen house a certain distance from the houses I can keep hens, no roosters. I do have a lot of flowers mixed in with everything. And all of this must llook better than my dog training equipment set up in the yard.

  12. #12 D. C. Sessions
    February 29, 2012

    A few more unique to the Southwest are covenants banning evaporative coolers (much more energy efficient than air conditioning when the conditions are right) and those requiring high water use landscaping with exotic species not suited to the area.

    As long as nobody is making an issue of native species, it’s possible to disguise perfectly good edible plants as ornamental. Mesquite trees are wonderful — they’re very water-frugal shade trees, they fix nitrogen, and the beans are either edible or excellent organic nitrogen amendments. Some prickly pear has edible fruit and pads. Quite a few climbing vines (e.g. Armenian cucumber) are both excellent shade plants and have edible fruit. Any number of edible herbs are also decorative (rosemary being perhaps the most popular example.)

    Being sneaky doesn’t get the laws changed, but it establishes a precedent that can be used when the time comes to wave the precedent under people’s noses.

  13. #13 Samantha Tengelitsch
    March 1, 2012

    Thank you for including some of the hurdles folks might come up against when trying to challenge zoning within their communities (love the good humor, too!). Great site!

  14. #14 Stephen B.
    March 1, 2012

    Well, I realize that AC isn’t exactly an issue of sustainability as Sharon is discussing here, but still, I have a related story.

    When my parents moved into a semi-finished house/detatched condo, in a suburb of Boston, some years ago, they made a few changes to the floor plan that moved the furnace and that nixed the easy addition of central AC to the ductwork. As my late father’s health worsened, AC became desirable nevertheless and they put a small, donated window unit in the upstairs bedroom.

    Well lo and behold, my parents HOA had a rule against window air conditioning units.

    Times were tight. Central AC wasn’t in the picture, so they went before the HOA board where the AC discussion went back and forth. Finally, my mother asked: “Would you mind telling me just what is so wrong with a window air conditioner anyway?” The chairman paused a moment and then offered: “If I wanted to live in Dorchester, I’d live in Dorchester.” (Dorchester is an urban, very diverse, and in some places, poor, part of Boston, for those who don’t know.) The rest of the board apologized profusely to my parents, horrified that their chairman actually had the gall to explicitly state the snobbish mentality behind the AC rule that, nevertheless, they all supported.

    Well, times change. The snotty chairman moved to Vermont I heard (wonder how *that’s* worked out) and I have since planted a whole number of fruit trees, blueberry bushes, and several garden beds, along with installing a plastic compost bin in the back yard for my mom.

    It turns out the HOA also had a ban against solar collector panels which I pointed out to them is against Massachusetts state law, which specifically voids laws that prohibit such panels.

    Small victories are possible, here and there.

    Nevertheless, I myself am slowly working towards moving to a very rural community in Maine. I’ve had enough.

  15. #15 Katherine
    March 1, 2012

    Where I used to live in Baton rouge, LA, on a very small lot (40×120 ft) we were amused to find that there were old covenants restricting us to no more than 6 hers. I think those covenants were quite old, probably dating to WWII era or before, but it goes to show how silly it is now that even in places that allow hens, they tend to want things like no more than 3 hens on a half acre.

  16. #16 c.
    March 1, 2012

    @Lisa in MN. Please know that those of us in Minneapolis are watching those laws get gutted TODAY at the Mineapolis zoning and planning commission meeting, some of it likely tabled till the 22nd meeting.

    They don’t want hoop houses tall enough for someone to actually work in. Lisa Goodman has started swingin’ on about how bad all this could be. Lot’s people’s hard work to see this move forward feels like it’s teetering on the edge of being less than half of what was being aimed at.

    And yeah Sharon, it ALWAYS ends up at the zoning comittee. ;) Have you read the history of how our cities got the right to regulate what they did? Most of it case law expanding upon the basic tenents of regulating for the health, safety and wellbeing of the populace. ie “for our own protection” although what we could call “health, safety, wellbeing” needs now-a-days is a very different thing than back when zoning laws first got goin’

  17. #17 Lori
    March 1, 2012

    I live in a rural area, and love the idea of keeping chickens, although I don’t currently have any. However, some previous neighbors had a serious rodent(rat) problem as a result of their shoddily constructed coop. I don’t hear proponents of chickens in town/city limits acknowledging this very real health issue.

  18. #18 Sara Rose in Alabama
    March 1, 2012

    @Lori
    You’re previous neighbors needed a cat, which is what cats are for.

  19. #19 Lori
    March 1, 2012

    My previous neighbor had cats, as did I. Cats alone are not enough when the rodent population reaches a certain level. Then you end up dealing with poison, which is dangerous to pets. I believe most chicken owners are considerate and would try to make sure pests are kept under control. But chicken feed does attract rodents.

  20. #20 dollie
    March 1, 2012

    You rock, Sharon! your writing speaks for so many of
    us out here, and especially this article. keep it up.
    Thanks, many thanks.

  21. #21 BarbG
    March 2, 2012

    I live in a blue-collar neighborhood in Chicago where chickens are legal. What I have noted is that my neighbors who are either old or at the lower end of the socio-economic class spectrum are the ones who are most appalled by my chickens. I offered a dozen eggs to one woman who has three kids and she refused them because she thought they were “dirty.” Ditto for the elderly widow next door. My young, educated, green-aware neighbors see the value in keeping chickens, yet the people who could really benefit from having them are the ones who view backyard chickens as both “low class and dirty” and something only for “hipsters and eco nut-jobs.”

  22. #22 Sharon Astyk
    March 2, 2012

    Barb, you know my mother, who grew up in a trailer park and dirt poor had the same reaction when my step-mother wanted to keep chickens. She associated it so strongly with poverty and want that she simply couldn’t see herself participating. I think that sometimes the trauma of real poverty is enough to engender a whole lot of PTSD about it, honestly.

    Sharon

  23. #23 Stephen B.
    March 2, 2012

    Absolutely Sharon.

    My mother grew up dirt poor in East Somerville (MA), in various 6 family row houses near the then extensive, Boston & Maine Railroad yards in the 1940s in some area then called Brickbottom.

    She tells stories of scraping pennies together to buy a bit of wood or coal at the nearby store as well as my grandmother doing a long commute when she herself was younger to Billerica in order to work long hours at a chicken slaughterhouse there.

    My mother is still rather alarmed that the way forward now seems to be via things such as more local gardening, more localized chicken rearing, and wood heat.

  24. #24 Mos Stef
    March 2, 2012

    @BarbG: It’s been my observation that it’s people who are closest to poverty are the most desperate to look like they’re not impoverished; I wonder if that’s the dynamic at work with your neighbors.

  25. #25 Diane
    March 3, 2012

    One thing that gets overlooked in all of the debates about zoning and urban ag, is that from the point of view of my mother’s generation (who cooked on wood stoves, butchered chickens, used wringer washers, hand-milked cows and the like) was that they actually ASPIRED to a suburban lifestyle with modern conveniences like central heating, clothes driers and milk delivery. Subsistence farming is HARD work and they looked forward to the day when they could afford to live in the relative luxury of the ‘burbs.

  26. #26 Jim Thomerson
    March 4, 2012

    Diane has a point. My family history follows kind of an upscale trajectory. We got electricity when I was maybe eight years old, and eventually even got inside plumbing, after I had gone off to college.

    Where I live now, I have all the conveniences. Bit I can’t raise hogs, put out a double wide, or have more than two horses.

  27. #27 Rebecca
    March 4, 2012

    Our local city has been going backwards while the rest of the country is moving forward. A few years ago, when people started requesting the ordinance against owning chickens be nixed, they actually strengthened the ordinance and upped the fines.

    I think the south in particular has a problem with these things because we are so much closer to the land and our agricultural heritage. In much of the country, most of the people are four, five, or even six generations removed from the land. Down here, the average is more like two. If you pick three random 35 year-old men from across the south, the chances are good that two of them either grew up on a farm or visited their grandparent’s farms on school breaks to help with the chores -and all three probably grew up poor.

    This doesn’t help people overcome the stigma associated with chickens and other livestock.

    I must admit that I am also subject to this prejudice to some degree. When we were deciding what kind of house to build on our land, my lovely wife mentioned how much she loves earthen floors, and I flipped out. Why? Because I can still remember my grandmother’s dirt floors. Yes, even in the mid-80s some people still had dirt floors. I grew up in extreme poverty. I *know* that earthen floors aren’t the same as dirt floors, but I couldn’t and can’t stand the thought.

  28. #28 dreamer
    March 4, 2012

    This is a most important topic. Some of these laws have been passed in the name of (fake) environmentalism, the reality being, like you wrote, the inexplicable attraction of very ugly McMansions. Yes, it’s an ego problem.

    I was zoned out of a job teaching horseback riding to five year old children because of zoning. We were on 6 acres and I taught maybe three children at once maximum, with lessons once or twice a day, a small, quiet neighborhood business. I taught the children much more than “just” riding, we would talk about trees and bugs, history and geography, art and crafts etc. Due to an anonymous complaint, zoning demanded cca. $60,000 for permits to run this small business. Outlandish permitting costs and a totally unreasonable “environmental” local zoning laws make supporting a small farm impossible. And make selling out to McMansion developers more likely.

  29. #29 hibob
    March 4, 2012

    One thing that doesn’t seem to be getting addressed here: despite the horrendous downturn, homes are the biggest investment most Americans will ever make. Homes are pretty much the only leveraged investment most Americans will ever make. The reasoning behind many HOA and zoning rules, erroneous or no, is that many of these activities would harm the resale value of their neighbors’ homes. And as the past decade has made clear, you don’t get to set the value of your home: that is entirely up to the people willing to buy.

    This being Scienceblogs, how about some information showing the impact relaxing the rules prohibiting front yard vegetable gardens, livestock in the back yard, etc actually has on real estate value?

    I’d have no problems with relaxing rules to allow growing/raising food. I would have problems if noise or air pollution rules were relaxed to allow home businesses, ditto with relaxing rules that prevent home businesses from significantly increasing traffic.

    So where do we draw the line?

  30. #30 afrika mangosu
    March 5, 2012

    The thing about this scheme is that we are seeing the economies of mas production.

  31. #31 Sharon Astyk
    March 5, 2012

    This being scienceblogs, how about we place the burden of proof appropriately – demonstrate that property values decline when hanging laundry or front yard gardens are in place? Claims about property values are largely subjective – and different buyers find different qualities attractive. Moreover, we already permit things that do affect property values – for example, we permit development in most areas that means more noise, more lawn mowers, more lawn chemicals, more pollution from cars and air conditioners – you’d really have to demonstrate that not only was there a negative impact, but one greater than, say, sprawl or most permitted activities. Again, let’s place the burden of proof appropriately – if you are going to claim that selling eggs out of your house significantly increases air pollution, you’d be the one who would have to prove that case.

  32. #32 Nicole
    March 5, 2012

    I have to agree with hibob, Sharon. The burden of proof falls on those who are trying to change the laws and buck the trend, not the other way around. Perhaps it shouldn’t be that way, but it is.

    For those of us who want change, we have to accept that we have to demonstrate that (at a minimum) there won’t be any negative effects, or no one is going to listen to a word we say.

  33. #33 Stephen B.
    March 5, 2012

    Eh.

    Beauty, of course, is in the eye of the beholder.

    Work to change attitudes and then clotheslines and gardens *will* increase property values.

  34. #34 Sharon Astyk
    March 5, 2012

    Except, of course, that it doesn’t – no one asks anyone to judge that someone’s dogs barking reduce property values, or that your neighbor’s three cars or the pollution from their many electronic devices does the same . The reality is that some activities are considered normal parts of life, and taken for granted – subsistence activities should be among them. The burden of proof that the sight of someone’s laundry reduces property values, a highly subjective analysis that assumes things about buyers that are hard to prove must rest on the people making that claim.

    Sharon

  35. #35 Sharon Astyk
    March 5, 2012

    It is also worth asking two other questions.

    1. What empirical, clearly researched grounds were most HOA and zoning restrictions built on – if we are going to imply that they come from well defined and scientific research on how individual actions affect local property values, that data should be clear and readily available. If, however, they derive primarily from assumption and prejudice, it would be hard to find the data that they build upon. I certainly haven’t been able to find any clear, well documented research on the precise economic impact a garden or a laundry line has – nor have I seen that referenced in any HOA.

    2. There’s a real moral question – even if it were true these activities adversely affected property values, do people have the right to preserve very short term property values at the cost of long term degradation of property values – climate change will do a lot more to hurt property values all over the US due to drought, heat waves, flooding, increased natural disasters, etc… – are we seriously going to claim that the right to run a dryer to preserve your short term interests exceeds the right not to have the house underwater or destroyed by a storm later on?

    Seriously?

    Sharon

  36. #36 NJ
    March 5, 2012

    Sharon@34:

    the pollution from their many electronic devices does

    ?

  37. #37 Stephen B.
    March 5, 2012

    A lot of HOA rules and constitutions are simply industry boiler plate documents pulled off a shelf by a builder’s lawyer when the builder is building. A good deal of the provisions contained within are standard and aren’t even checked over for suitability for the project at hand. This is how my mom’s community had a ban on solar collector panels even though such a ban has been against MA law for over a decade.

    Around eastern MA, it’s easier to build condos and neighborhoods with HOA covenants because it makes building approval by the town easier to obtain. Towns are much more prone to approve projects where they don’t have to maintain the roads or pick up the trash, even though they’ll be collecting property taxes just the same. Along with private condo, homeowner associations, come all the covenants.

    Around here, it’s the expensive, non condo, non-HOA neighborhoods that are the most desirable as most folks recognize the extra enjoyment they get from not having to deal with another layer of government rules. HOA and the associated rules are the price one pays for not being able to afford something better. HOA rules are meant, around here, anyhow, to keep the new developments and the people contained within, in check.

    I assure you, the new, more expensive neighborhoods in my mom’s town have some horses, goats, etc.

  38. #38 Nicole
    March 5, 2012

    If you are trying to convince me, Sharon, you don’t have to: I’m already on board.

    All I am doing is pointing out that a successful negotiation strategy does not mean you walk in and demand someone else produce defensive evidence that they are right without presenting evidence of your own that they are wrong. At that point you are asking them to do work FOR you so YOU can get something. You will get precisely nowhere.

    All successful negotiations hinge on appealing to the other person’s best interest. Unless you have a why and some concrete reasons why a change is in the best interest of the community, your negotiation will fail.

  39. #39 Sharon Astyk
    March 5, 2012

    That would be a problem if it were an accurate description of what I am doing. The thrust of my argument doesn’t depend on proving there is no economic cost – it is in pointing out that the presumption that there is is based on unscientific and bigoted assumptions, and that the burden of proof correctly resides elsewhere. Any number of things have been changed by making precisely those claims.

    Sharon

  40. #40 hibob
    March 5, 2012

    @Sharon

    “The thrust of my argument doesn’t depend on proving there is no economic cost – it is in pointing out that the presumption that there is is based on unscientific and bigoted assumptions, and that the burden of proof correctly resides elsewhere.”

    You can certainly go to your neighbors, the ones who chose to spend their free time on your HOA or zoning board, and point out that their assumptions are unscientific and bigoted. They will then vote on your motion or request for a variance.
    I think Nicole summarized pretty well how that goes. Barring legal action and the willingness/ability to take it to an appeals court, some incredible friends in the state legislature, or a PR campaign that manages to really grab people’s attention, you’ll get bupkis.

    I’d think a better method would be to try to get elected to your HOA or zoning board. Convince your friends to do the same. Then start trying to SHOW (not tell) the rest of the board that they will be better off with a few minor changes.

  41. #41 Alan
    March 7, 2012

    In the western U.S., “right to farm” laws are mostly pushed by agricultural interests whose operations abut or are near residences and shopping areas (suburban sprawl or just the edge of towns). Residents of these areas rightly fear the chemical sprays and fogs being applied just across the property line from their homes and businesses and have agitated for restrictions on these kinds of “agricultural” activities. The agricultural interests have fought back with “right to farm” laws which protect their “right” to spray anything that’s not banned by Federal law, regardless of the concerns of nearby residents. Other concerns of these agricultural interests (you notice that I don’t call them “farmers” because many of them strain any traditional definition of the term) include preserving their “right” to plop down CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations), or as most of us call them “factory farms”, anywhere they please regardless of the water and air pollution concerns of nearby residents.

    As long as farming includes practices which humans are rightly afraid of, then “right to farm” laws need to be very carefully tailored to protect people’s rights not to be poisoned. This is difficult when most state legislatures are dominated by rural interests and concerns about air and water pollution tend to be regarded as anti-business “enviro” nonsense.

  42. #42 Jim Thomerson
    March 7, 2012

    Read in the paper about a local development which has free ranging exotic deer and antelope. Said animals, being exotics, don’t have any (so far as I can tell) legal protection. Various local folks are trapping them and shipping them off somewhere for some reason. Some locals don’t like it and complained for years. Turns out what they have to do is write up a covenant amendment and get 75% of the homeowners to sign on.

  43. #43 Diane
    March 7, 2012

    Followup to #4:
    At the planning commission meeting last night I learned that permission to keep any livestock currently requires a special use permit which costs between $600 and $900!. The commission agreed that this is unreasonable for a few chickens or rabbits and since most people do not know about this requirement many young 4-Hers have been unwitting criminals. They agreed to instruct the planning department to draft a regulation allowing a small number of poultry or rabbits without the permit although they may require that they be registered for a small fee so that the state vet has a record of where they are kept. Statutes to deal with larger animals or larger numbers will be considered at a later date. Several eloquent farmers and families and a very sympathetic state employee concerned about local resiliency were the key speakers. Very encouraging and I hope this may provide some suggestions to others hoping to change their local ordinances.

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