Facing the Zoning Monster

Sharon February 12th, 2009

Over the last 50 years, food and zoning laws have worked to minimize subsistence activities in populated areas.  Not only have we lost the culture of subsistence, but we’ve instituted legal requirements that make it almost impossible for many people to engage in simple subsistence activities that cut their energy use, reduce their ecological impact, improve their food security and improve their communities.  In some cases, these laws were instituted for fairly good reasons, in many cases, for bad ones that associate such activities with poverty.

In fact, scratch most of the reasons for these things, and you’ll find class issues under their surface in the name of “property values.”  There are ostensible reasons for these things, but generally speaking, the derive from old senses of what constituted wealth – and what constituted wealth was essentially having things that don’t do anything of economic value, but show that you can afford.  It is important to remember that many things we think are ugly because of their class associations are not inherently ugly – that is, a lush garden is not inherently more ugly than a lawn (quite the contrary), nor are colorful clothes on a line inherently unattractive.  What we find beautiful has to do with our culture and our training, otherwise how could anyone have ever found a 800K McMansion beautiful?

Among the basic subsistence activities legislated against by towns, cities and housing developments are:

1. Clotheslines instead of dryers.  Reason: Looks poor.  Might suggest you can’t afford a dryer.  Plus, you might see underwear that isn’t your own.  This is a major cause of sin.

2. No livestock, but large pets are acceptable. Reason: Ostensible reasons are health based, a few even broadly grounded in fact, real reason is that pets, which have no purpose other than companionship and cost money, are broadly a sign of affluence, while livestock are a sign of poverty, because they provide economic benefits.

3. No front yard gardens.  Reason: The lawn is a sign of affluence – you have money, leisure and water enough to have a chunk of land, however tiny, that doesn’t produce.  It creates in many neighborhoods a seemingly contiguousm, but basically sterile and safe seeming ”public” greenspace that is actually privatized and not very green.  Gardens, on the other hand, have dirty wildlife and bugs in them, and might grow food, which is bad because it implies you can’t afford it – even if you can’t. 

4. No rainwater collection.  Reason: This is mostly in dry places in the Southwest, for fear that the tiny amount of available rainwater might not reach people who can’t afford to pay for it, or strangely believe that water that lands on their roof might belong to them,  and who would like to have gardens anyway.  A few other municipalities do it for fear of west nile disease because they seem never to have heard of screens or mosquito dunks.  Oh, and barrels look like you can’t afford to water your lawn with sprinklers, even when it is raining.

5. No commerce of any kind. Reason: This often does not include white collar telecommuters who can make money out of their homes all they want, or upscale white collar professionals with home offices.  Instead this means people who want to sell food, do hair, fix things, etc…  This is deemed ugly and bad – and it is a visible reminder that people might not have enough money to keep warm burning it, and might need to earn some.

Now I realize I’m being a little bit unkind.  People have real aesthetic concerns – but a law that outlaws even tasteful gardens or small tasteful signs that say “eggs” on them, or a town that tries to keep its “traditional” “colonial” or “small town” feel without actually allowing any of the characteristics of traditional, colonial or small town life is creating a sterile Disneyland as well as destroying long term environmental, economic and food security.

The reality is that clothes on the line aren’t empirically ugly.  Neighborhood cats carry more diseases than backyard poultry.  If you can put a political sign on your lawn, you should be able to put a sign that says “fresh baked goods” on it – hell, food security is political!

That means that these laws can’t be allowed to stand.  And that means that one of the first things you or your community, your transition group or your neighbors can do is to push to change your zoning laws or your neighborhood covenants.   

That means you need to get involved.  Go to the town meetings.  Get to know you zoning board.  Talk to your neighbors.  Strategize – can you find some people who want chickens to get together with?  Find out what the objections are and address them – if people are afraid of bird flu, remind them that bird flu is largely a problem of industrial production.  If people think that lawns are beautiful and food gardens are ugly, show them otherwise.  Show them that other towns are doing it – remind them that Seattle allows chickens and that there is a national “Right to Dry” law. 

If the law won’t help you, consider whether you are willing to consider civil disobedience.  Unjust laws need to be overturned – you don’t have to go to jail to be Thoreau, sometimes you just need to plant some kale.  But before you do that, do know the price you may have to pay – make sure you are willing to pay it.  Someone with courage who is willing to pay a price may have to go first – and if you have the willingness to be the one to fight that battle, well, all honor to you.

The reality is that some of the zoning restrictions and covenants will fade as times get tougher, but we really can’t afford to wait for things to be really bad to get our chickens – because it will likely to be harder to come by diverse stock then.  We can’t wait to grow food until we’re already hungry.  We can’t wait to collect water until our well is dry.  It is worth fighting these battles right now – particularly since many of them truly are rooted in ugly prejudice against the poor,  and separation from our agrarian past.

Well, most Americans couldn’t get much more separate from our roots, so that’s sort of silly. And bit by bit, people are bringing clotheslines and front yard gardens back, and making them cool again.  But we can’t wait for that to happen – because the reality is that many of us will be poor, and the utility of these activities will be needed to soften our poverty.

We can’t wait until everyone sees a garden full of food as beautiful and lush.  Instead, we’ve got to make sure that even those who still think it looks old fashioned and dirty don’t get to control something so basic as our future anymore.


67 Responses to “Facing the Zoning Monster”

  1. Cathy says:

    Sorry for the double post — and, yes, I do hang my laundry outside!

  2. goinggreen says:

    Very timely and interesting post Sharon. Here in tony Westport, CT, there was a recent petition by some troubled neighbors to ban roosters. Our uptight neighboring town to the North, New Canaan, CT already bans them, and the petitioners pretty much took their ordinance and promoted it here.

    The situation stemmed from the rooster being in a neighborhood where the houses were fairly close. After some negotiations, a volunteer came forth to accept the rooster (and a hen) to remove the rooster from the disturbed neighborhood. The family still has hens, and there is no effort here to ban them as well. This solution has apparently made everyone happy, and the issue has been dropped–for now.

    There is a clear slow food movement going on in town, and the ordinance was going to receive fairly strong opposition. Your reference to a class issue is rather perceptive. In some of the discussions, it was clear there was a mentality, mainly held by older people, that somehow growing one’s own food and keeping farm animals was not appropriate for Westport anymore, that we had become a wealthy suburban community in the New York City metropolis, and that we really should recognize that fact and act appropriately.

    The opposition to the rooster ban ordinance, which didn’t speak out too forcefully, because the issue was resolved prior to the big Town Meeting showdown, was represented mainly by younger people, also relatively wealthy, trying to hold back this suburban tide and trying to push hard on the greenhouse gas issue by, among other ways, reducing the amount of fossil fuels used in agriculture through advocating local gardens/farms, etc.

    Last year, I had some extra tomato plants that I grew from seed. Since I had ran out of space in my garden, which is in the back of the house, out of site, out of mind, I put the tomato plants in the front. If anyone noticed, they didn’t say anything.

    The local movement is young here, but it seems to be growing.

  3. Sharon says:

    Cathy, I have some sympathy, but not tons. Zoning is fine with me if used with a scalpel, not a scimitar, but generally speaking, the prohibitions don’t work to provide the minimum constraint with the maximum benefit. As they say, when you’ve got a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

    Moreover, many of the people who grow, say, food in the front yard, are trying to eat – the tiny reduction in property values caused by a few stalks or shed in a non-approved color seems like a pretty small problem in a country where we’ve got 12 milliion hungry kids.

    Zoning is always phrased in objective terms, as protecting the character of a place, or conserving aesthetic considerations. But our aesthetic considerations seem often to come down to class prejudice, and character exists in many places without restrictive zoning policies. So no, mostly not buying it.


  4. Mark says:

    Portland, ME city council approved the chicken ordinance last night:

  5. yarrow says:

    4. No rainwater collection. Reason: This is mostly in dry places in the Southwest, for fear that the tiny amount of available rainwater might not reach people who can’t afford to pay for it, or strangely believe that water that lands on their roof might belong to them, and who would like to have gardens anyway. A few other municipalities do it for fear of west nile disease because they seem never to have heard of screens or mosquito dunks. Oh, and barrels look like you can’t afford to water your lawn with sprinklers, even when it is raining.

    If you’ll permit me my favorite soapbox….

    Actually, it has a lot more to do with Water Compact laws. Western water law is a many headed hydra, that doesn’t much resemble what they do out east where it rains all the time. For example, we get about 12″ of rainfall annually here in Albuquerque. If you catch every drop that lands on your roof during the wet summer monsoon season, that’s actually thousands and thousands of gallons. But New Mexico owes a certain number of acre feet of Rio Grande water to Texas every year. Likewise, Colorado owes NM a certain number of acre feet. The Rio Grande is the primary conduit for these acre feet of water. This Compact Law was codified mostly in the 1930s, during one of the wettest periods in Western history. Because of that, the Compact laws require too much water to move south, in all cases. The quite legitimate fear, backed by the numbers, is that if the water that falls on Albuquerque rooftops does NOT end up back in the Rio Grande pretty directly, then we fall short of our Compact requirement. We are presently pumping water out of our aquifer to meet Compact requirements. Not every year, but often enough.

    The thing is, if every person in sprawling, 1-million-person Albuquerque started harvesting all of our rainwater tomorrow, in the short term, we *would* fall short on the Compact. However, in the long term, we would re-create a healthy underground aquifer (the one we’ve been steadily and increasingly depleting since WWII), thereby recharging the river underground. It’s a slower process; it would take 50-100 years of 100% rainwater harvesting plus a complete and total stop on development to get the aquifer healthy again, but if we kept all our rainwater *right here*, by harvesting it into gardens & landscape use, then we *could* do it. And ultimately, the Rio Grande would run full again. As it no longer does.

    Getting the legislatures of the various Compact states to agree to such a thing, however, is probably impossible. Not to mention the ticky-tack real estate developers, who want to stack more crap all over the mesas, and then pump aquifer water uphill fifty miles to feed their cheap waterless developments. And it would complicate irrigation for farming, which is a much more valid concern. People would have to start irrigating through rainwater harvesting as well as through the acequia system, and we would not be able to count on as much acequia water, because Colorado would be harvesting some of the rainwater that they presently send down the river because of the Compact. Which would mess with everybody’s traditional Spanish farming methods (which are pretty dang good on the sustainability front), not to mention it would mess with the *conventional* farmers, outside the Rio Grande basin, who spray water through the AIR, where up to 50% of it vanishes immediately (more if it’s windy, which it often is), to “irrigate” their crops. Idiots. Spraying water around here is just plain stupid. Flood irrigation allows it to soak into the ground with no more than a 20% evaporative loss, and it expands/preserves wildlife habitat and native plant habitat as well. But you can only flood where there’s a river to support it, and where the river has summer-long water in it. Which means there are some areas, many areas, which should never be farmed, because the water situation does not support it, and many of these are being farmed anyhow. This is a real problem. As well as being a situation where growing livestock that can eat the native grassland (without destroying it utterly! which is mostly a matter of proper rotation and not grazing too many head per acre for the actual land conditions) makes a heck of a lot more sense than growing corn.

    Now, all that said, the cities of Albuqueruqe, Santa Fe, and many other municipalities in New Mexico and Arizona are actively encouraging rainwater harvesting. We’re behind the curve, it’s true; we should have been doing it all along, and doing more of it than what they’re currently promoting—but they ARE encouraging it. (Colorado’s the one with the anti-rainwater-harvesting laws, that i know of; I’m not sure about Utah & Nevada.) There’s a tax rebate on rainwater barrels these days, and we just managed to pass a law requiring all new development to have rainwater catchment installed as part of the building process. Not enough gallons per structure, and they’re putting a lot of it underground, which means it requires pumps rather than gravity flow—but anything at all is better than nothing, and I am very pleased our city council got that one through. Likewise, greywater reuse in landscaping is legal and becoming more popular, though certain code-based restrictions apply on a municipal basis, in both New Mexico and Arizona. The code restrictions are workable—in Abq, the greywater garden must be 100′ from a well, you can’t allow greywater to stand or to be stored, but must use it immediately for landscape purposes. That makes *sense*. The one that annoys me is that kitchen greywater can’t be used. They’re concerned about microbial contamination in poorly designed systems, (or “pipe out the back” systems), which does make sense, but they don’t allow room for properly designed systems that take the actual content of kitchen water into account. Like underground pumice wick systems with a particle trap. No standing water, healthy soil that eats the microbes.

    I highly reccomend Art Ludwig’s Create an Oasis with Greywater, available at http://www.oasisdesign.net, for a lot of great greywater garden designs and systems. He is a site-specific thinker, which is an approach that really works for greywater—where building codes are deliberately *not* site-specific, which is the problem. And check out Brad Lancaster’s Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands, both volumes, if you’re interested in using your land to catch your rain to grow more crops.

  6. Jack Pine says:

    Like many of our institutions designed to solve one problem, zoning has caused at least as many unintended consequences as the number of problems it has solved. Originally designed to separate dangerous polluting industries from residential areas, reduce congestion of extremely high densities, provide for reasonable air and light to get to street level, and provide setbacks to reduce the chance of catastrophic fire spread, it has become the source of many of our modern urban, suburban, and rural problems. It has been politicized and used to stratify communities by class through arbitrary lot size requirements; it has contributed to automobile dependence through restricting large areas to residential, commercial, or industrial districts; and, when it is overly restricted, it gets in the way of needed change. Nevertheless, it is still one of the most effective tools communities have to implement master plans to shape their future. Some communities are working on mixed use districts. Many are adding sustainable activities to permitted land uses including chickens and permaculture activities. What is needed is the ability to listen, creativity, and the recognition of the need to make changes, and political will. Unfortunately, planning departments are often terrible bearcat staffed by well meaning people who may agree with us but who operate in fear that they may be accused of making a mistake or of having spoken out of school. To remake our communities, we will need to remake the way we plan them.

  7. Norm(al) says:

    Has anyone considered the subversive role played by obese corporations in all of this? The manufacturers of clothes driers seek profits! Given the built-in corruption of our business-political complex does anyone doubt that they pull special favors – via campaign donations – to force “consumers” to buy their contraptions instead of using a bit of rope?

    And how about the mega food giants — do they not make outrageous profits when they discourage, nay, stop people from growing their own food? By making “dirt” “unfashionable” through subtle advertising, by stopping community garden projects, by working through old boy networks to zone out self-sufficiency?

    Let us not be duped or confused — these corporations exist for only one reason… -written into the law- to make profits for shareholders… Not to support sustainable lifestyles. It is time to stop trusting them, to stop the insanity, to see through their lies and obfuscations, to retake control of our own lives… before they kill us all with their unique brand of “kindness”.

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  12. Richard says:

    Using the sun to dry your clothes makes since. No power is used therefore we reduce our carbon footprint.

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