In a neighborhood of restored brick bungalows, homeowners cover their ears to muffle the noise from the marble-grinding business next door. Elsewhere in the city, families live next to cantinas, industrial-pipe storage facilities, pest control businesses and high-rise office towers.
Such scenes rarely rate a second glance in Houston, the only major U.S. city without zoning.
That status may change on Nov. 2, when voters will decide whether to approve a controversial zoning ordinance passed by the City Council last summer. Polls show the measure has a good chance of winning.
“It’s a coming of age for Houston,” said Stephen Klineberg, a sociologist at Rice University. “It’s recognizing that when the oil boom ended, the foundation of our economy shifted and quality-of-life issues became critical in determining the city’s future.”
Under the “Houston-style” zoning plan, one of nine land-use categories will be assigned to every parcel in the city. Thousands of existing businesses that do not conform to the new zoning will be allowed under a grandfather clause if noise, traffic and pollution standards are met and adjacent landowners do not object. But 150 specifically targeted bars, hourly motels and tattoo parlors in residential areas must close under the ordinance.
With the referendum just two weeks away, the battle for votes is heating up.
“Zoning adds politics to land use, and where has government proven at any level that it does better than the market?” said Julio Laguarta, a home builder and treasurer of the anti-zoning Citizens for a Better Houston.
His group warns that zoning cedes property rights to bureaucrats, encourages political corruption and will cause huge tax revenue losses as nonconforming businesses are forced to shut down.
“If Houston is so out of step, and zoning is so great, why is it that Money magazine lists us as one of the most desirable places in America to live?” Laguarta asked.
Opponents also say they believe that zoning is racist, producing higher rents and taxes, thereby pricing low-income families out of better neighborhoods.
“Zoning is a tool of segregation used against minorities and the poor,” said the Rev. J. J. Roberson, president of a black ministers organization. Roberson’s group is under fire for accepting $6,000 from an anti-zoning organization to build opposition in black precincts.
Countered the Rev. Bill Lawson, an influential black leader and zoning supporter: “When you see these (hourly) motels in residential neighborhoods, you know that they are clearly not for travelers and you can understand why we need zoning.”
For homeowners such as Grant Hart, the question comes down to whether he will have to erect an eight-foot-high fence, double-insulate his walls, ceilings and floors and install plexiglass and storm windows to shut out the noise from the marble-grinding business next door.
Referring to that neighbor, Hart, 55, said: “This guy bought a house and put all the equipment outside. He’s cutting and grinding and polishing all day. It’s nuts.”
Two blocks from Hart’s red-brick bungalow, a large tin building houses an iron-forging operation, the speakers of its outside intercom silenced last year only after repeated complaints from neighbors.
About half a mile away, workers from a neighborhood business drive forklifts up and down the tree-lined streets.
“This should not be happening in a residential area,” Hart said. “Houston is a free-for-all.”
Zoning will “help the little guy have more of a say of what’s going on with the land around him,” said Brandy Wolf, co-chair of Citizens for Zoning.
Houston for generations had a strong pro-growth ethos tied to the notion of free land use, University of Houston political scientist Richard Murray said. Four zoning proposals have been rejected here since the 1920s. The leading opponent was oilman Hugh Roy Cullen, who considered zoning a socialist concept and denounced it in 1948 as un-American.
Variations of that view lingered until 1982, when the city enacted a set-back ordinance, its first serious land-use restriction.
Local attitudes toward zoning shifted significantly in the late 1980s, when property values plummeted in the wake of the oil bust.
Commercial businesses and light industry bought hundreds of foreclosed houses at bargain prices and opened shop in residential areas. Middle-class homeowners found themselves living next to air-conditioning repair services and fast-food joints, and they began clamoring for relief.
Donna Kristaponis, a Florida land-use expert, was hired as the Houston planning director in 1991, and the struggle to draft an ordinance began.
“Zoning was perceived as bad, wrong . . . something other cities did, but not Houston,” Kristaponis said. “It was like teaching capitalism in Moscow.”