Signs Everywhere: Is Houston Ready for Zoning?

First it was the infamous ‘Stop Ashby Highrise’ lobby… a bitter battle to defeat developers that have worked well within the bounds of Houston law, and want to build on land that they rightfully own. Sure the battle is still raging thanks to a barrage of lawsuits, but at the end of the day, there’s nothing to really stop them from building whatever they want there.

The impressive campaign to defend the “character” of Southampton (Ashby High rise’s future neighborhood) did not go unnoticed. Now in Houston, there is a wave of ‘Stop the Highrise’ activity, from San Felipe in the Galleria to a rapid coalition forming to block development in the Heights. These neighborhoods continue to spends thousands of dollars to somehow change developers’ minds, or enrage the public enough to force the city to stop the activity.

The big gaping problem that these neighborhoods don’t want to address?? The city of Houston does not have basic, comprehensive zoning laws. Granted there are some city ordinances that have done much to regulate lot size like Chapter 42, but it is one small piece of a much larger puzzle. There is very little to actually protect a neighborhood from having a high rise built in the middle of it if a developer owns the land and gets the proper variances. Because actual zoning law is so weak, developers are going to win these fights every time, no matter how much attention the signs get. The latest attempt to enact zoning was in 1994, and was overwhelmingly defeated in a low-turnout referendum. Now many argue that there are big advantages to this… of which the most prominent is affordable housing throughout the city.

Instead of spending thousands of dollars to demonize the developers, why not put zoning laws on the ballot and let Houstonians decide? Remember the red-light camera debacle? As many complaints as were lodged against the city then, the ballot measure has ensured their removal. Done. END OF STORY. This could have also been the fate of Ashby High Rise, if the residents of Southampton had put 1/4th the energy they did in screaming signs and transferred it to the ballot box. What we have yet to figure out… until the citizens of Houston come together and put comprehensive zoning in place, there will always be another Ashby. And in the end, the developers will win that fight too. In an area that is growing as rapidly as Houston, stuff is going to get built, and it has to go somewhere. If we choose not to regulate with proper zoning, then all the crafty sign campaigns in the world aren’t going to make a difference.

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