Zoning issue splits Houston

In 1982, the home-building industry nationally had its worst year since 1946, yet Houston had its best one ever and led the nation in housing starts and sales for the ninth consecutive year.

Much of the city's expansion, in the past decade at least, comes from being the nation's energy center and a focal point of migration to the Sunbelt. But many Houston residents also boast about the city not having something - zoning regulations.

Being the only one of the country's 25 largest standard metropolitan statistical areas without zoning has kept Houston's home-building industry robust and solidly in the black, and has made homeowners of people who might still be apartment dwellers if they lived somewhere else, concludes a study by Friendswood Development Company, the land-development subsidiary of Exxon.

Houston does have urban planning, however, say the zoning critics - planning done by an active real-estate industry meeting buyers' demands rather than the government's.

Zoning enthusiasts say the quality of life in Houston has declined as a result of the absence of zoning, which could have prevented many of the city's serious problems.

Opponents say growth problems such as traffic congestion and overloaded sewer systems are inevitable in a boom town whose population swelled from 938,000 in 1960 to 1.6 million in 1980.

The escalation of mortgage interest rates in the past few years has disqualified many potential home buyers. In Houston, however, developers reduced the size of the houses they built and the price fell with it.

The Friendswood study puts the median price of a new home here at $73,000 in the first half of 1982, compared with $85,000 in the Dallas area, where homes had to be 1,400 square feet on lots at least 60 feet wide.

Proponents of the no-zoning philosophy - including business leaders, public officials, and academicians - maintain that the absence of zoning has made possible a high-energy capitalism that would have been curbed by land-use regulation.

Zoning panels can often be political and run by people unqualified for the job. Corruption is an ever-present threat because big money is involved in land development. More than that, general rules sometimes don't suit the widely varied circumstances to which they're applied.

Virtually unrestricted apartment development has apparently made for lower rents in Houston. The lack of density restrictions also allows more people per square mile, cutting Houston's sprawl.

As for commercial intrusion into residential areas supposedly cutting property values, the opposite has happened with a vengeance in two old neighborhoods near downtown - and even more dramatically around Houston's second downtown, the skyscrapers of Greenway Plaza and the nearby Galleria shopping mall.

Houston honors the Texas tradition of laissez-faire on the premise that if bureaucrats controlled private enterprise, they might make it as financially successful as government is. But advocates of zoning argue that a bit more government is not necessarily big government and could be useful. Moreover, they say, Houston has a number of laws similar to zoning regulations that masquerade as city ordinances.

Lack of zoning has made possible more than Greenway Plaza and the revival of once-deteriorating neighborhoods, say zoning proponents. Condominium towers have sprung up in the back yards of single-family homes and clogged streets with traffic. A few self-proclaimed modeling studios and debatable night clubs grace neighborhoods with neon signs as well as patrons and their cars, which may wind up on residents' front lawns.

Houston's penchant for annexing land around it overextends city services. It brings in low-grade structures that are not built according to the city's building code. It promotes development so far away from the city's core that some residents have little sense of identity with Houston.

Some zoning enthusiasts predict that when the quality of life deteriorates sufficiently, Houston could find that its madcap growth has become a liability and the businesses and residents it once attracted will leave or, in effect, secede by forming suburbs.

The potential for zoning to protect the quality of life around Houston is demonstrated at Intercontinental Airport, says Wolfgang Roeseler of Texas A&M University's urban planning department. The airport was built in open country, but the land around it was quickly developed.

Meanwhile, Kansas City built an airport about the same time and under similar circumstances, but controlled land use in the area. Kansas City now does not worry about noisy overflights; Houston does. With zoning, Houston ''could have saved itself'' from some of its problems, Mr. Roeseler says.

The absence of formal zoning regulations does not mean zoning advocates have not tried to pass them, but always without success.

Although no public official who plans to stay in office has publicly espoused zoning lately, it looks to some observers as if the council is regulating land use a little at a time by denying building permits in certain areas and passing ordinances to reduce the size and number of billboards and the locations of junkyards.

An ordinance to control the locations of adult bookstores was ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge, but another restricting mobile homes to designated parks successfully resisted a court challenge.

The Texas Legislature, in 1965, passed a special law giving Houston permission to enforce deed restrictions, most of which relate to prohibiting apartment houses in single-family subdivisions.

''It's sad that zoning has become such an emotional issue,'' Mr. Roeseler says. ''Whenever there's a little problem, they (City Council members) pass an ordinance which is a zoning ordinance, but they don't call it that.'' He says formal regulations would serve the city better than the current approach.

''Experience throughout the country has been that the comprehensive approach has a lot of advantages,'' Mr. Roeseler says. ''It puts everyone on notice, and you don't have these brush fires to put out.''

Houston may never have zoning regulations identified as such, Mr. Roeseler adds, unless a leader with enough prestige can overcome emotional resistance, engineer the regulations' passage, and survive as an office holder. It is more likely, he says, that the bit-by-bit regulatory method currently in vogue will continue.

If either zoning referendum had gone the other way, ''one can almost say in the macrocosm, Houston would not have been much different,'' Mr. Roeseler says.

To say that Houston made a success of itself because it had no zoning ''is not a realistic self-assessment,'' he continues. ''Dallas has experienced phenomenal growth and has had zoning for decades. Los Angeles, 30 years ago, experienced the same kind of thing. I would dismiss that as being somewhat silly , because the evidence does not support it.''

Houston's pull on businesses and residents is so strong that expansion was a matter of destiny, not zoning,'' Mr. Roeseler says. ''The City Council could have said, 'We prohibit growth,' and it would have happened anyway.''

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