Sunday, December 18, 2011

Zoning and healthy communities

The Wall Street Journal recently reported the city of San Juan Capistrano, CA, fining homeowners who host a Bible study group that fifty people attend for hosting a group attended by more than three unrelated adults ( The city has some legitimate concerns: zoning regulations protect property values (if you disagree, visit an area without zoning laws) and preventing traffic congestion and accidents caused by too many cars on residential streets.

But surely, a law restricting attendance to groups of three or fewer unrelated adults is too restrictive. That law effectively prohibits two tables of bridge players from routinely meeting in the same home as well as a wide variety of other activities. When the family protested the fine, the city of San Juan Capistrano agreed to reconsider.

So, how many cars on the street are too many? What activities properly belong in a residential area without zoning permission and what activities reasonably require a zoning variance?

I argue that no single specific answer exists to those questions. The best answer is to require the zoning board (or other government body) to use its good judgment. Instead of specifying the number of people who may attend, the law should outline principles the decision-makers will utilize in making a determination. This approach recognizes that no policy will fit all situations, honors the good will of one’s fellow citizens, and expects that the vast majority of the time reasonable people will reach reasonable accommodations.

Underlying this post are my concerns about two trends in American (and perhaps most western) society. First, goodwill toward and trust in one’s fellow citizens are rapidly diminishing. People prefer to rely upon rules rather than goodwill and trust. Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not arguing for anarchy. I support zoning. However, I don’t want to live in a society that is so completely regulated that no room exists for individuality or the exercise of personal judgment.

Second, regulations tend to spawn bureaucracies that write yet more regulations and promote surveillance to ensure compliance with the regulations. When I was in the Navy, I wrote the Navy’s first instruction governing the money collected in chapel services. A major dispute among stakeholders in the drafting process was how to prevent theft and fraud. Nobody liked my position, which, thankfully, ultimately prevailed. I contended that theft and fraud were impossible to prevent. Instead, the best approach was to take reasonable steps to prevent problems and then to take appropriate action against miscreants. When I moved on to a new duty station, encrustations to the instruction began to accumulate, primarily designed to prevent theft and fraud. However, theft and fraud continue to happen and no data exists to show that the extra costs associated with the additional precautions have paid for themselves in savings. The same phenomenon of increased surveillance in response to proliferating regulations is occurring more broadly across our society, unnecessarily intruding on privacy and limiting personal freedoms.

The 2012 campaign season offers Christians and other people of faith (or no faith) an excellent opportunity to emphasize that trust, goodwill, and civility are essential foundational elements of healthy communities. Viewing the incident in San Juan Capistrano as evidence of a culture war against Christianity or religion misses more fundamental and important issues.

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