How much control should a city have over where and how you live?

The premise is not unreasonable. Des Moines’ zoning code is from 1965, with 300 or more modifications in the 50 years since. The theory is it is time to consolidate the changes, update zoning map accessibility to make use of interactive computer graphics, give some authority to staff for approval of variances, and allow options for challenges other than going straight to lawsuit. The result should be a code that is simpler to understand how it applies and easier to use. Objections have not been heard from any stakeholder about the need for an update.

However, the proposed code released this spring by the City of Des Moines is antithetical to Libertarian philosophy. Libertarians favor less government, fewer regulations, and more freedom for individual decisions. The proposed code not only tells what uses are allowed in what areas, it sets minimum sizes for houses (single-story, story-and-a-half, and two-stories). Additionally, a garage is required with all new residential construction. The City does not care if the garage is used for a car; the City just wants the added value of the structure. The City also claims the garage will reduce visual nuisance in neighborhoods by giving people room to store whatever they may already have sitting in their yards.

Our 2018 candidate for House District 32 campaigned on a theme of people and relationships, rather than policies and regulations. At a recent public meeting hosted by the City’s Community Development staff, attendees were inquiring about construction, albeit in terms of affordability. How people live their lives, from being a young and growing family to aging in place and all the choices between those two points, was not part of the discussion. Different people may want a similar type of neighborhood in terms of the various forms of environment, but those people may have different priorities in their lives and interests. A regimented code does not allow for individualism and the related liberty.

The City’s plan for minimum housing sizes, styles, and additional amenities (e.g., garage and full basement), according to the Community Development staff, is to allow a tax base that would pay for the new roads, additional fire and police protection, and other infrastructure and services. The Community Development staff at the recent public meeting claimed less wealthy households would benefit by buying these more expensive houses. The argument presented was that a garage on a property increases the valuation at a faster rate than if there is no garage. Thus, the less wealthy households could increase wealth faster. As one of our Dallas County Libertarians noted in a letter to a newspaper editor earlier this year, increased valuations lead to increased property taxes. The City’s staff did not address how a person of lower wealth would qualify for a loan to buy the minimum-sized house with garage, make the ever growing property tax payments (particularly if the household income does not keep growing), or afford to buy the gasoline to drive to the stores to buy groceries and other necessities that would not be allowed in the residential communities.

There are many more issues of government control versus individual liberty within the proposed zoning code than are listed here. One question asked at the recent meeting, and not answered, was what happens if an existing house is destroyed by fire or tornado. Does the new construction have to follow the proposed new zoning code, if adopted, even if the destroyed house was much smaller or otherwise non-conforming?

The City has been working towards this new plan for several years. However, attention from media has only begun to bring this to public attention. The current schedule for the proposed plan includes a Plan and Zoning Commission public hearing in July at 6 pm and a City Council hearing in August at 4:30. Then, if the current schedule is retained, the City Council is set for a third reading of the of matter on October 14, 2019, with the code possibly going into effect on October 24, 2019. That date would be one week before the municipal election on November 5, 2019.

Information on the proposed plan is located online at: 

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