Zoning Bigots: A Los Angeles County Land Use War Shows the Dark History and Darker Future of Urban Planning

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"BLACKS," Baltimore's progressive mayor J. Barry Mahool said in 1910, "should be quarantined in isolated slums in order to reduce the incidents of civil disturbance, to prevent the spread of communicable disease into the nearby White neighborhoods, and to protect property values among the White majority." Mahool was not just sowing some of the seeds of the race hatred that bloomed in Charm City throughout the 20th century. He was also laying out the logic of planning and zoning that applies to the present day. The zoning ordinance Mahool stumped for in 1910 became a model for New York City's landmark 1916 Zoning Resolution, which established the international habit of imposing "setback" requirements for tall buildings and limiting height based on lot size.

In a June New York Times op-ed piece, architecture critic Sarah Williams Goldhagen applauded the Big Apple's zoning resolution, which in its current form is 3,411 pages long and includes detailed prescriptions for the operation of cotton gins, tight restrictions on placement of "tot-lots," and 4,351 instances of the word permit. (If you placed all those permits end to end, you would get four articles as long as the one you're reading.) Goldhagen views this unwieldy document as a victory for "urban dwellers" who "realized that developers ... would never reliably serve the public interest." She believes this leap forward in urban planning created vibrant contemporary cities, despite occasional reversals when "populist, antigovernment sentiment among voters began to shift power back into private hands." And she hopes to head off future episodes of revanchism by empowering "design review boards, staffed by professionals trained in aesthetics and urban issues and able to influence planning and preservation decisions."

An architecture critic would need to be pretty sheltered to claim, in a city where only bazillionaire developers have the legal muscle to build so much as a roof on a porch, that the problem is an underdeveloped regulatory apparatus. But at least nobody moves to New York so he can live large in wide-open spaces. For that you move out west. Or used to.

Northeast Los Angeles County is a flat desert of cacti and tumbleweeds that easily stands in for Texas and Mexico in Hollywood movies. The Antelope Valley is populated in significant part by truckers, retirees, and mavericks who move there specifically to get away from urban busybodies. Their lifestyle choices--including septic tanks, self-generated power, self-built homes, and usually a few old vehicles on the lot--would probably displease neighbors "trained in aesthetics and urban issues," but for the most part they have no neighbors. At some Antelope Valley residences you can do a 360-degree turn around the property without seeing a single other person or building.

That has not stopped big government from kicking people out of their homes. Since 2006 Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich has been dispatching "nuisance abatement teams," consisting of officers from various city and county agencies along with sheriff's deputies, to conduct armed raids against property owners whose residences fail to meet paperwork requirements. …