Category Archives: Property Rights

Zoning Laws And Religious Freedom

Last week, I wrote about a Fairfax County, Virginia zoning ordinance that was forcing a family to accept trees that they didn’t want on their property, today’s Washington Post, though, has an article showing how zoning and land use laws can interfere with more than just property rights.

McLean Bible Church, a Tysons Corner megachurch, has sued Fairfax County so it can continue to offer religion classes that officials say violate zoning rules.

In a 14-page suit filed July 3 in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, the 10,000-member church says the classes are a regular part of church life, which is protected under the freedom of religion.

Fairfax officials say the church can’t host the classes — which can help students get a master’s degree in theology or divinity at Lanham-based Capital Bible Seminary — without county permission to operate as a college.

(…)

The dispute over the classes began in 2004, when Fairfax officials found that the church violated zoning rules by holding the classes. The church says the classes fall under a provision that allows use of the campus for “groups or activities which are sponsored by the church and consistent with its ministry objectives.”

But county officials said the church needs permission to run a college. According to a March 2005 county report, zoning staff noted that Capital Bible Seminary had set up an office and library at the church and that the classes were “designed as part of a degree program which may lead to a graduate theological degree.”

At that point, the county report said, 40 of 130 students attending the classes were “associated with the church.”

McLean Bible appealed the ruling after limiting Capital Bible Seminary’s presence by doing away with the seminary’s office and library. According to the lawsuit, the church also offered to ensure that students would not be able to complete a degree solely by taking classes at the church. Fairfax denied the appeals.

Once again, though, the question is this: what right does the County of Fairfax have to tell McLean Bible Church what it can do on its property ? The question is even more important here, because we aren’t just talking about property right; for many religious denominations, education and evangelism are a part of their religious mission. McLean Bible Church appears to be one of those denominations.

Effectively, by saying that the Church cannot operate these classes on its property, Fairfax County is restricting the Church’s ability to practice its religious beliefs.

There is a reason, of course, that the County is doing this:

McLean Bible Church, which sits on a 43-acre campus on Route 7, has long had a tense relationship with some nearby residents, who have complained that the complex — which includes a bookstore, a 2,400-seat auditorium and a cafeteria — is too large for the suburban neighborhood. Neighbors have said the church brings too much traffic to the area’s clogged roads.

Last year, the McLean Citizens Association approved a resolution urging the county to uphold its decision to bar the classes.

“We’re concerned about the potential for unlimited and uncontrolled growth of the school project,” said Jim Robertson, an association member. “We don’t object to a school. All we asked is that they limit the number of students and the times of the classes. The bottom line is traffic.”

In the lawsuit, the church notes the “presence of vocal opposition to the church” and alleges that the zoning decision “appears to be based more upon political pressure than legal principal.”

Given the circumstances, and the degree to which the County appears to be micro-managing Church affairs in this decision, I think there’s good reason to believe that this is true.

Related Post:

Government Regulation And The Housing Market
Zoning Laws And Property Rights

Zoning Laws And Property Rights

This morning’s Washington Post carries a story that stands as yet another example of the ways that zoning laws and other land-use regulations interfere with our property rights.

Their seven-bedroom, $2.2 million dream home is in spotless, move-in condition. It’s an elegant hideaway on 1.6 acres in Oakton, set back from a winding, tree-lined road — a perfect place for their four youngest children to grow up.

But for 36 days, Karen and Joe Bartling and their children have been homeless. Along with their college-age son and the family’s Labrador retriever, they have been holed up in a tiny efficiency apartment in Chantilly with a pullout couch, all of their belongings in a storage locker.

The Bartlings can’t move in until their builder plants 20 to 80 trees on their property that Fairfax County says are required in part because the builder cut down too many mature trees during construction.

The thing of it is, the Bartlings don’t even want the trees:

[T]o the Bartlings, the trees are nothing but booby traps wrapped in wire and wooden stakes: Four of their five children — who were adopted from Korea, China and India — are blind. For them, trees are bumps and scrapes waiting to happen.

“I don’t want my kids having black eyes running into trees all day,” said Karen Bartling, 48. “These kids have enough obstacles in their lives. The last thing we want is trees in our yard.”

Unfortunately, they have little choice in the matter. Fairfax County is requiring the Bartlett’s builder, NV Homes to plant the trees after another neighbor complained when they removed trees during site clearing and construction.

Fairfax requires builders in residential developments like the Bartlings’ — four homes on 10 acres called the Estates at Oakton Hollow — to preserve trees on 20 percent of the property. The trees can be old or new, to replace those that were knocked down for construction. NV Homes planned to put a “significant portion” of the trees on the Bartlings’ lot, county spokeswoman Merni Fitzgerald said. This was partly because some of the other lots lie in a septic drain field that needs to be cleared, said Hugh Whitehead, a county urban forester.

The builder also recently cleared some trees on another lot it may develop in the subdivision, county officials said, prompting a new round of planning to replace them. In both cases, dozens of new trees are needed to make up for the old ones, Whitehead sai

When the builder told them the trees were going to be planted, and the Bartling’s objected, they were told that they didn’t have a choice in the matter. As a result, settlement has been delayed, they are living in a hotel, and the interest-rate lock on their mortgage is about to expire.

Now certainly some of the blame here lies with the builder. They cut down more trees than they should have under County laws. But, what about the Bartling’s right to have the house and the property they contracted for? Not only must they accept the trees if they go to settlement, but they are prevented by County law from cutting down any of the trees, even though they already had plans for the space:

The Bartlings said they planned to build a swimming pool and put a swing set, trampoline and barbecue in the back yard, leaving precious little room for a forest. The trees would be scattered around the property, making it impossible to fence them off.

Unfortunately, because Fairfax County now presumes to tell them they cant do with their property what they planned to do, they seem to have no choice in the matter.

Related Post:

Government Regulation And The Housing Market

Government Regulation And The Housing Market

The Washington Post has interesting article today about the almost complete lack of smaller-sized homes being bult for the Washington DC/Maryland/Virginia market.

There are several reasons that this is probably occurring. Land values are so high that it makes more sense for developers to build one large homes rather than two or three smaller homes. The result is a market where it is virtually impossible to find a single-family home for less than $ 500,000, and even townhomes are selling in the $ 400,000 price range. Consumer demand is also cited as a reason only larger homes are being built; homebuyers, so this argument goes, don’t want smaller homes, they want the 3,000, 4,000, and even 5,000 and more square foot homes being built all over the DC area today. There is one factor, though, that seems to me to have the biggest, and most distorting impact of all. Government regulation of land use.

Consider this quote from the article:

Architect Christian Lessard said he and the other developers of MetroWest, the 2,250-home project underway near the Vienna Metro station, would happily build a larger number of smaller homes, but community opposition limited the number of units they could build. To make back the cost of the land, he said, the builders designed the townhouses they were allowed to build to be as large and expensive as possible — about 2,500 square feet, a size that in similar developments sells for about $500,000.

Lessard acknowledged that the outcome was not ideal.

“We’re only designing for 20 percent of the population right now. That can’t last forever,” he said. “As a society, we’ll have a problem because eventually no one’s going to be able to afford this other stuff.”

Well, the problem is that government regulation of land use and house size is distorting the market place. If all the developers can build are larger homes, then thats all that people will be able to buy. And some people will be priced out of the market completely.

Even when people recognize the problem that the regulations are causing, though, the only solution they can seem to come up with is more regulation:

Local government planners say there is little they can do beyond measures in place, such as requiring builders to set aside some units as moderately priced. These policies produce only so many affordable units, and builders generally charge more for the market-rate units to make up the cost of building the set-asides

(…)

Fairfax planning director Fred Selden said the county is considering using incentives to ensure a mix of unit sizes in new condominium and apartment projects, but there are no plans to use cottage zoning or any other means to influence the size of townhouses or single-family homes. There’s no doubt, he said, that developers have an easier time getting approval for projects with fewer, larger townhouses because they produce less traffic and less competition for on-street parking, since bigger units come with more garage space

Here’s a radical idea. Stop telling developers what they can do with their property and let them build housing based on market demand rather than economic necessities created by your regulations. Maybe it just might work.

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