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November 27, 2006

The Far Reach Of Zoning Laws

by Doug Mataconis

I’ve written before (here, here, and here) about the impact that zoning and land use laws can have on individual rights. In various parts of the country, they are used to keep undesirable businesses out of certain areas, or to restrict the types of business that can be conducted in a certain areas. And, in one New Jersey town, they are used as a form of criminal punishment:

FRANKLIN TOWNSHIP, N.J., Nov. 21 — The man identified in court documents as A. B. does not talk to his neighbors or tarry at the convenience store. Seventy-seven years old, soft-spoken and sometimes confused, he hardly ever leaves the little ranch house he bought in 1969. “People know what’s what with me,” he said.

What’s what with A. B. is that he moved back here last year after serving seven years in prison for sexually molesting two grandchildren and another youngster. And because his home is in a “child safety zone” drawn by the township, he may be forced to leave it.

(…)
Such regulations — more than 100 have been enacted in New Jersey municipalities — are popular around the nation. More than 20 states have broad laws keeping sex offenders from schools, churches, playgrounds and the like. This month 70 percent of California voters approved expanding statewide restrictions to include more sex offenders, and authorized towns to designate even stricter limits.

New Jersey is not the only state where such laws have passed, of course, and some states have already starting imposing limits on the ability of local jurisdictions to restrict where people can live based solely on the type of crime they may have committed in the past:

An Ohio court ruled in October that the state’s buffer-zone law could not be enforced against offenders who lived in such zones before it took effect. Citing several constitutional concerns, a federal judge in California issued a temporary restraining order barring enforcement of the residency restrictions set forth in the state’s recent ballot proposition.

In Georgia, plaintiffs in a class-action suit include several offenders who would seem to pose little further threat: an elderly man with Alzheimer’s disease and another living in a hospice, along with a woman whose long-ago conviction was for having consensual oral sex with a 15-year-old boy when she was 17.

“We’ve represented people on death row, we’ve represented what I thought were some pretty unpopular people,” said Stephen B. Bright, president of the Southern Center for Human Rights, which is handling the Georgia case. “I didn’t know what unpopular was until we started representing sex offenders.”

What’s even more troubling is the fact that these laws don’t really address the real source of most crimes against children, which exist right inside the home:

Experts say at least 90 percent of child molesters, like A. B., abuse relatives or family friends. Yet Charles Onley, a researcher at the Center for Sex Offender Management, a project of the federal Justice Department, said that “most of the laws are passed on the basis of the repulsive-stranger image, when in most cases the offender knows the victim.”

Still, parents’ demands for reassurance are hard to dismiss, especially as sex offenders are forced out of neighboring towns.

And given the new laws that are coming on the books, it’s hard to see where they are going to go:

On Tuesday the City Council in Jersey City enacted an ordinance that prohibits sex offenders from living within 2,500 feet of a school, park, sports facility, theater or convenience store, among other places. The measure exempts offenders who already have established residence in such zones, but bars newly released convicts who want to return home or move in with relatives. Taken together, the zones block out virtually the whole city.

Of course, once that happens, there won’t be any more abused children in Jersey City, right ? Yea, sure.

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1 Comment

  1. It’s not entirely correct to label these restrictions (which I oppose) as “zoning laws.”

    Here the “zone” follows the sex offender; in traditional zoning the “zone” is anchored to the geography.

    Residency restrictions are considered a penal matter; zoning laws are direct restrictions of property rights.

    I’m just saying…

    Comment by KipEsquire — November 27, 2006 @ 10:19 am

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