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JEFF JACOBY

Why Boston can learn from Houston’s nonexistent zoning code

A view of the Houston skyline.
A view of the Houston skyline.Scott Halleran/Getty Images/File 2013/Getty

When developers proposed to turn the old commercial property next to our Brookline house into a large condominium development, they came over to show the plans to me and my wife. As the nearest abutters, we would face considerable disruption and discomfort during the year and a half that construction would take. And once the project was finished, we would have lost a good deal of privacy: In place of the red brick wall enclosing our property on two sides, four-story residences would tower over our little backyard.

My wife and I understood that the developers needed to secure our consent to the project before approaching the town’s Planning Board and selectmen for the necessary variances and approvals. We also understood that our consent would significantly clear the way for the developers to make some serious money. We consented. And in exchange, the developers offered us — their sincere thanks.

Were we suckers?

Judging from a story in Sunday’s Globe, only a chump would agree to support a developer seeking zoning approvals without making sure to get something in exchange — an envelope stuffed with cash, say. The story documented numerous cases of lucrative logrolling in Boston, where local neighborhood groups have taken to selling their support to developers who need “community” backing when they go before the zoning board. According to court documents, e-mails, and records reviewed by the Globe, the practice often amounts to extortion, lightly disguised as donations to the neighborhood. Such “donations” can add hundreds of thousands of dollars to the price of development. Builders suck it up as just another expense to be paid if you want to develop property in Boston.

In our case, we didn’t ask for any quid pro quo, other than a commitment to wash the construction grit off our house, and to fix anything of ours that got damaged. The developers agreed (and were true to their word). We told Town Hall we didn’t object to the project. The brick wall came down, and the condos went up.

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On heavy snow days, my wife and I still joke that we should have demanded free parking in the underground garage the developers built. In truth, though, there’s nothing amusing about treating unreasonable extortion as a normal cost of development. Nothing amusing, that is, about zoning.

These kinds of shakedowns are made possible because of zoning codes that bar property owners from using their land productively until they have kissed an array of government-sanctioned rings and rear ends. But why should municipal officials exercise such power? Zoning codes are not repositories of divine wisdom. They are collections of monkey wrenches, making it all too easy for officials to impede private owners’ rights for political gain.

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Boston’s zoning code, like many others, is a maddening, obstacle-strewn labyrinth. The code, which runs to more than 3,000 pages, is “written in the language of the 1960s and goes back as far as the 1920s,” zoning chief Bryan Glascock told the New Boston Post in May. Owners seeking to develop their property are routinely turned down, forcing them to run the time-consuming, expensive — and political — gantlet of the zoning appeals process.

“What we want as a city is not reflected in zoning,” Glascock admitted.

More cities should emulate the example of Houston. It has no zoning code, and voters have repeatedly refused to authorize one. There are regulations aplenty in Texas’s largest city, but there’s no zoning. By and large, it is market incentives that determine what gets built where — not buckets of rules imposed from above by omniscient city planners.

The results are impressive. Industry, housing, and business sort themselves out without Big Brother’s help. In the process, they have turned Houston into one of the nation’s fastest growing cities — popular, affordable, eclectic, and diverse. Treat private property rights with respect and deference, and what you get is a booming, blooming city. Maybe Boston ought to try it.

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Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jacoby@globe.com.