NIMBY Wars – political motives in siting church, school or porn shop

The Saint ReportNIMBY, Planning and Zoning, saintblog0 Comments

(Editor’s Note: NIMBY Wars — The Politics of Land Use will be published on October 28. In this excerpt, in land use fights it’s important to recognize when an opponent’s motivation is political, rather than moral or religious or environmental) 

By P. Michael Saint, Robert J. Flavell and Patrick F. Fox

NIMBYWars_coverRecognizing that land use decisions are political and identifying the political motivations can be difficult; even people motivated by politics sometimes don’t realize it themselves. But recognizing the opponent’s motivation as political, rather than simply religious, moral, or environmental, for example, is essential to mounting an effective political strategy. If the opponent’s motivations are perceived as religious, civic, or moral, they may well be unassailable.

Church

Attacking another person’s religion is seldom a winning strategy. If the real motives are political, the debate is no longer about right and wrong but about how the issue affects the neighborhood. At that level, campaign tactics will work. While it might seem otherwise, the issue of whether to grant zoning relief to permit construction of a controversial church building is not a religious decision, but a political one.Consider the motives of the opposing sides of the issue. Parishioners want approval for their personal convenience in attending services, and maybe also as a physical, public affirmation of their faith and rectitude, as a demonstration of their community influence, as evidence of their growing importance, as a monument to encourage others to join up, and as a use that is likely to enhance their community’s image.

Neighbors of the site oppose the project because they don’t want the inconvenience of church traffic, noise, and hubbub resulting from regular services, weddings, funerals, parish events and meetings, fraternal and youth gatherings, and other activities. A busy church, they perceive, is more likely to diminish their property values than enhance them. A few people might be motivated as well by bias against the tenets of the religion involved or the people who practice it, but even if they are, they can’t very well oppose the church publicly on that basis.

 Church proponents will argue that the facility will be an asset to the neighborhood, not only for its architectural presence, but also as a symbol of stability and faith. Opponents will argue that the building’s mass will dwarf the neighborhood, and that they don’t want the edifice to dominate their lives and sharply change the character of their neighborhood, as it is sure to do. The winner of this debate will be the side that is best organized and that devises and executes the most compelling political campaign.

School

Similar issues apply in siting a school, which is even more emotional than the church debate because it hits parents squarely in the offspring and childless taxpayers firmly in the wallet. Where a school gets built is rife with sociopolitical ramifications: which kids get assigned to the new facility, which must be bused to attend it, and whether parental choice or geographical location will govern whether a child attends that particular school. Parents who want their child educated nearby will favor the school if they are sure their child will attend it, but they will be furious if a new school is constructed next door (with the attendant adverse impact on property values) and their own child is assigned elsewhere. In such a case, they are forced to tolerate the downside of having a school next door, but receive none of the benefits.

As the eldest baby boomers pass retirement age, they see fewer reasons to support school buildings, budgets, and programs, and an increasing number of reasons to urge frugality where public education is concerned. They argue that fewer children should mean fewer classrooms, not more; that the student-teacher ratio need not equal that of expensive prep schools; that fancy new facilities do not make for better education; and that there are limits to what the taxpayer can bear, given the rising cost of living and the fixed income that senior citizen retirees face.

 School proponents may well accuse the baby boomers of hypocrisy, since their own offspring were educated in the public school system, and now the boomers want to pull up the ladder on the next generation. As boomers morph from public spending advocates to frugal taxpayers, the less-numerous soccer mom generation will face a real fight. 

Porn shop

A final situation bears examination: the broadly unpopular use. Churches and schools are one thing, but what about a porn shop in the business district? Despite often indignant opposition to such uses, they are legal as expressive free speech, even if socially and morally offensive to many. The police power, as we’ve seen, can be used to protect public health, safety, welfare, and morals.

 Constitutional rights, however, can trump this motivation. The decision whether to permit a porn shop cannot be based on morality, which is no answer to what is constitutionally or statutorily legal. Moral strictures vary among different religious groups at any rate, and they do not bind those who are not members. In the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, pornography at some level (soft-core or hardcore) is legally available to adults.

 Without delving into the details of how various countries differ in their treatment of porn, the dominant view is that the tenets of free speech in Western republics and current legislation in modern nation-states require that such business uses be tolerated. Communities cannot flatly ban them, and must therefore make some provision to accommodate them. The battle is predictable: the porn shop merchant proposes a legal use, but lacks political influence. The neighbors argue the adverse impact the store will have on passing children. They are unmoved in their opposition, even though the merchant points out that kids are not allowed in the store, smut is not displayed in the front windows, the signage is discreet, and the decoration is bland.

 The reason the neighbors will not be moved is that the morality and child protection arguments are often not the real reasons for their opposition. These arguments are used because they raise parental and moral emotions, are perceived as more incisive than the real reasons, and are therefore able to trump any argument that the merchant can offer. They are used politically, for political impact. The real reasons for opposition are the adverse effects the shop is expected to have on property values and the neighborhood character.

A porn shop is perceived as the first step in neighborhood deterioration, in downgrading and polluting the residential character of the area. It will attract an undesirable element, damage the residents’ quality of life, reduce livability, and inevitably adversely affect property values. The fact that people consider it morally decadent doesn’t help the shop owner’s case, but it’s legally irrelevant since free speech trumps moral sensibilities.

 Who wins this battle? In most cases, the neighbors do. The public officials deciding the case recognize that an organized group of angry voters is more politically dangerous than a disgruntled would be porn shop owner. Does the porn shop owner appeal to the courts and win? Maybe, if he can afford it and the board’s decision is not well couched in legalese. But the politicians are safe: they voted against the porn shop, and if a court overturns their decision, they can rail against activist judges who interfere with the democratic process and legislate their own brand of morality. The case will be remanded to the board for further hearing, and the board will again turn it down or, on advice of counsel, perhaps arrive at some compromise, such as locating the shop in an industrial zone at the edge of town.

(For biographical details on P. Michael Saint, Robert J. Flavell and Patrick F. Fox, click here)
Nimby Wars releases on October 28th, but is now available for pre-order at the following fine booksellers:

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