Whose Property Rights?

By Scott Mooneyham | Apr 15, 2013

RALEIGH — Many of the North Carolina legislators who have been working to undo local government authority over zoning and land-use planning probably believe that they are striking a blow for the individual and their property rights.

I would contend that they are doing the opposite, and as a former professor used to suggest, taking their ideas to their "logical extreme" proves the point.

Over the last three years, state legislators have been filing, and in many cases passing, measures limiting the ability of cities to annex property and restricting city and county zoning authority.

Annexation has been and will continue to be divisive, and the legislators who championed annexation limits were clearly responding to pockets of constituents who believe that they had been unfairly taken into city corporate limits.

But a number of legislators are not satisfied with two years of annexation limits.

So far this year, lawmakers have filed bills that would put annexation restrictions into the state constitution, stop cities from exercising zoning and land-use planning in extra-territorial jurisdictions around their corporate limits, and prohibit counties from establishing zoning restrictions that prohibit manufactured homes on individual lots.

The cumulative effect of just a couple of these measures, based on  my old prof's logical extreme standard, is pretty obvious: With no extra-territorial jurisdiction, only county government would wield the power to prevent incompatible uses from popping up next to subdivisions at the edge of a city corporate limit; even county government would be restricted from stopping a mobile home from being set up next to a $500,000 house.

Of course, this scenario assumes that county government would even want to place any zoning restrictions around city ETJs.

The sponsor of the manufactured housing proposal, Rep. Nathan Ramsey, a Buncombe County Republican, opposed countywide zoning when he sat on the county commission there.


Ramsey's rationale is that mountain counties need affordable housing and that restrictions on manufactured housing mean fewer people can afford housing.

It is worthy rationale, but it ignores modern concepts of property rights. Like much of the other legislation, it also ignores the potential long-term effects of undermining those rights.

People buy residential and commercial property with the expectation that their investments will be protected by zoning and other local governmental authority, that incompatible uses won't drive down the value of their home or business.

The protections afforded by municipal zoning are among the reasons that people choose to live in cities.

No one wants to borrow $100,000 or $200,000 or $500,000 to buy their dream home only to have a junkyard or a mobile home park or a gravel quarry locate next door and leave them owing more to bank than the property is worth.

If this legislature, using some ill-informed notion of what constitutes individual rights, allows that to happen, the result may well be less economic growth as people become more cautious about property investments.