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The No Zoning Zone – Stop Shepherd Noise and the Strange Life of Houston Real Estate

By: Luke Gilman | Other Posts by
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Houston is notorious for having no zoning; though with covenants and deed restrictions, some say it has zoning without zoning. This leads to a wild west of sorts, where battles over competing uses of real estate spills out of the bureaucrats office and into the streets.

Case in point: one of the large real estate developers here in town recently plowed under an historic (for houston standards) shopping center to make way for a new Barnes and Noble/Starbucks retail multiplex. Things got heated when a revision in the plans revealed an open air wine bar jutting out from the complex that will be rented for private parties. To the neighbors, whose quiet, residential neighborhood lies, in true Houston fashion, just across the street, this raised the spectre of live bands and raucous wedding parties rocking in the open air wine bar until 2am. The developers had to get a variance for the porch and the neighbors are launching an appeal to the public at – if you’re within earshot, I suggest you take a look.

I live down the street from another proposed development that raised the ire of local residents. See Stop Ashby High Rise. I declined to take up my pitchfork to storm the castle, but when a ‘Stop the Tower of Traffic’ sign showed up in my yard, I had no trouble leaving it there. This has lead to some surprisingly interesting conversations; it turns out people have more strongly held and varying beliefs about zoning than one might assume from the fact that you’re talking about well… zoning. For many native Houstonians, no zoning is a point of pride. For some it’s the price of progress – which is true, I guess if you count progress as urban sprawl and neighborhoods that rise and fall like fashion trends. Sharpstown, anyone? As a 2003 Newsweek article notes:

What is unique about Houston is that the separation of land uses is impelled by economic forces rather than mandatory zoning. While it is theoretically possible for a petrochemical refinery to locate next to a housing development, it is unlikely that profit-maximizing real-estate developers will allow this to happen. Developers employ widespread private covenants and deed restrictions, which serve a comparable role as zoning. These privately prescribed land use controls are effective because they have a legal precedence and local government has chosen to assist in enforcing them.

When I moved back to Texas from New England where I did most of my growing up, I found Houston to be a difficult town to get to know. I suspect the no zoning policy is a part of it, though there are others. Not having zoning, of course, doesn’t mean Houston is doomed to sprawl, storefrotn shopping centers and gated apartment complexes necessarily, but it means there is greater civic responsibility to stay involved in the development of the city. When a developer makes a choice that negatively impacts those already there, it’s incumbent to make ones voice heard, to internalize the entire cost of that decision and look for ways to work cooperatively to make Houston a better place to live and work and raise a family.

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Category: life in houston


One Response

  1. We appreciate the support, Mr. Gilman. You are right about the perils of a lack of zoning. People who think the City should not grant a variance to a developer to allow them to break the law should sign the petition at

    Thanks for your support!

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