Don't punish developers with proposed zoning changes
Saturday, February 18, 2012
Beth Cody, Writers' Group member
Iowa City Press-Citizen

The Planning and Community Development Department is drafting a number of zoning amendment proposals for the Iowa City Council to vote on to prevent new multi-bedroom student housing complexes near downtown Iowa City.

These proposals largely are in response to a complex currently being developed on East Washington Street.

Residents are concerned about the problems often associated with development:

  • Increased density.
    Limited parking.
    Maintaining the financial value of real estate and the character of neighborhoods.

It’s easy to sympathize with residents; the idea of change can be frightening.

But we should consider a few points:

First, it should be clear to everyone not personally invested in implementing zoning changes that it is manifestly unjust to change zoning laws after developers have purchased property with intent to build in good faith with exisiting zoning codes.

The appearance of impartiality of the law is corrupted when laws are passed seemingly to prevent one person from doing what is currently legal. If we wish to maintain respect for the idea of law, we must attempt to employ every other means to solve problems (and demonstrate their seriousness) before resorting to such obvious unfairness.

Developers (an impartial term that makes it easy to forget that they are human beings with families, too) will likely suffer financial losses if laws are changed after property is purchased. In addition to all the demolition costs and the legal, architects’ and filing fees, the developer has likely spent a year of his time on this project. Even those with anti-development biases surely understand that these losses are not fair.

Developers purchase land with every expectation that current laws will be enforced. On the other hand, residents and business owners certainly had no right to expect that development would be prohibited when they moved there, because the zoning laws do not prohibit development.

If the Iowa City Council wishes to prevent future apartment complexes without affecting projects currently in development, that is less objectionable. But the current project should be dealt with fairly.

The most fair way would be for those most concerned about the development to put their money where their mouths are. Instead of using the heavy hand of government to yank the rug out from under this developer (likely resulting in a lawsuit that taxpayers living in every neighborhood would have to pay for), those in the affected neighborhood should either accept this already begun project or offer to pay for any losses sustained from halting development.

The developer, seeing which way the wind is blowing, might accept reasonable compensation and sell the property to someone willing to construct a smaller building on the site, or pocket the money and construct a less lucrative building himself. Those who wish to change laws to benefit themselves should be the ones to pay for the cost of those changes.

Another consideration is housing affordability. Proposed zoning changes would limit the number of three-bedroom units, resulting in more one- and two-bedroom units. This, together with requiring more parking spaces (another proposal), will obviously result in more expensive apartments. For a City Council that regularly trumpets “affordability” as an important goal, this makes little sense.

Unless, of course, “affordability” really means “affordability in certain neighborhoods, but not mine.”

I will only point out that NIMBYism is not an attractive thing to watch.

But perhaps the worst proposed zoning change would be to expand the prohibition, by law, of more than three unrelated people living in one dwelling unit. If four minimum-wage workers (or two unmarried couples) want to reduce housing costs by sharing an apartment, what gives us (or the council) the right to tell them that they cannot?

And will the “apartment police” conduct raids to enforce this invasive law? The idea of government dictating our living arrangements should be distasteful to everyone.

We can only hope (against the odds) that saner, fairer heads will prevail in this local issue.