Of course I was pleased to see the other day that a high school student from around here won a $1,000 prize in an essay contest, extolling the glory of property rights, though I admit I was a little taken aback that one of her examples of government intrusion on those rights was zoning regulations, and in particular the regulation of business signs.
Zoning? Signs? I thought that was a long-settled question. In fact I remember in my early days as a reporter for this newspaper checking out the constitutional basis for zoning laws and finding there had been a test case as long ago as 1926 (Euclid, Ohio vs. Amber Realty), in which the Supreme Court ruled that limiting property to certain uses and not others did indeed pass constitutional muster, and that case has stood ever since.
The court cited the high court of Illinois for its reasoning: “The constantly increasing density of our urban populations, the multiplying forms of industry and the growing complexity of our civilization make it necessary for the state, either directly or through some public agency by its sanction, to limit individual activities to a greater extent than formerly.”
Indeed, it’s hard to imagine living in a town or city today that doesn’t regulate the size and placement of signs. What do you suppose such a town or city would look like? Billboards blocking the view coming out of a sidestreet, gas station signs larger than the gas station, blinking neon signs outside your bedroom window?
And hard to imagine a town or city where you could do whatever you want with your property, even though I realize there are still people in the boondocks who harbor the notion that they have a God-given right to do anything they want with their own property.
Of course, and obviously, you cannot have a feedlot in the middle of a housing development, you cannot put a toxic landfill across the street from a school, you cannot build a skyscraper in a single-family neighborhood. It’s zoning laws that prevent it.
That the constitutional guarantee against being deprived of your property without due process is not violated by such restrictions has been settled law in this country for close to a century.
So what the devil is this Bill of Rights Institute that gives $1,000 prizes for alleging the opposite? That’s what I wanted to know — and it wasn’t hard to find out.
The Bill of Rights Institute is a project of the Koch brothers, Charles and David, owners of Koch Industries and financial backers of the most prominent right-wing libertarian causes in the land, including the Tea Party, with an emphasis on causes that will bring greater profit to their businesses. These causes include fighting all manner of government regulation, especially environmental regulation (the brothers are in the gas and oil game and are ranked by the University of Massachusetts’ Political and Economic Research Institute as one of the top 10 polluters in the country), as well as glorifying private property rights in general as against the larger claims of society.
Thus does a high school student pick up a thousand bucks for an essay questioning local government’s right to regulate signs.
Good money for her, small change for Charles and David Koch, with a combined net worth of $47 billion. Why, since the 1980s they have given more than $100 million to right-wing political causes, according to Wikipedia. Yes, $100 million!
Anyway, I am happy for the student who won, but please don’t anybody get the idea that zoning laws are unconstitutional, or even that they are unwise.
• The kind of zoning that allows certain uses in certain areas is known to this day as Euclidean, not for the Greek geometer but for the suburb of Cleveland whence arose the legal test case.
• The French call it “zonage a l’americaine.”
• The strictest zoning I have seen is in Jerusalem, where everything is built of the same color stone as the ancient walled city. It gives a beautiful effect, even though it begins to look forced after a while and I found myself yearning for a bit of discordance.
• The Koch brothers pronounce their name “coke.” Ed Koch, the former mayor of New York City, pronounces it “kotch.”
It comes from Old High German for “cook,” which in turn comes form Latin “coquus.”