Friday, September 23

Is This Better than Spot Zoning?

While I was walking to work today, I passed by this house, on the intersection of 4th Avenue North and 7th Street, which was recently sold. In front of the house was a big "Apartment for Rent, contact XXXXXX Property Management" sign.

This house created a fair amount of controversy in Great Falls a bit more than a year ago. The former owners of the house had spent a great deal of money refurbishing it into a bed and breakfast, and wanted to sell it. Before they had purchased and refurbished the home, it was broken up into apartments and was an ugly slum. They converted it into a beautiful example of how gracious the lower North side can appear. Refurbishing that property had a positive effect on the much of the lower North side, and neighbors in the area commented on how it improved the area.

They had arranged a deal with a local law firm, which was going to use the house as its office. The sale required neighborhood approval and a "spot" zoning change, since it was not zoned for commercial use.

The neighborhood council, led by Mayoral candidate Dona Stebbins, nixed the idea. At the neighborhood council meeting when the issue was discussed, Stebbins railed against spot zoning as the antithesis of good city planning.

Because the zoning change was turned down, the sale fell through. The house was eventually sold a few months ago.

Now it looks like one of the more graceful residences in the area might again be broken down into apartments. Depending on how that is done, the building may again devolve into what it was.

I would like to know why this outcome is better than allowing the spot zoning change. I like and, quite frankly, support Dona's candidacy. However, I think she has to better explain why we should hold the line against allowing spot zoning changes.


dona stebbins said...

Aaron, when I began to volunteer with Neighborhood Housing Services in the early 80's, the South side of Great Falls was a blighted area due to spot zoning. People bought property there with the expectation of turning it into commercial property, after a spot zoning request. 9th Street is still "suffering" from those days. NHS was able to stop that process, and after that, it was a question of rebuilding the area, and focusing on residential development.
I had some very mixed emotions about the house you are talking about. Personally, I could see the law firm as a good use of the property. But many of the neighbors in that direct area came to our Council, and requested that we stand against it. In fact, it was their input that dictated the City Commission's decision to deny the rezone. They mounted a very impassioned campaign - and as a Neighborhood Council person, I represent the interests of the neighbors, despite my own feelings.
When you file for public office, whether it is Neighborhood Council or May, your private agenda goes on the shelf for the duration of your term. What you do in office is dictated by the needs of your constituency. I acted in accord with the desires of the Neighborhood, and I stand by my decision.

Treasure State Jew said...


Thank you for posting here.

I made this original post not as criticism, but as a request for the explanation you have written.

As one of the neighbors in the area, I did not contest the old owners attempt to sell the property to the law firm. At the time, I was more concerned about what has now happened; that the space would be broken up into apartments.

I hope that this works out for the best. If not, a lot of effort and investment by a number of us 4th Avenue North property owners will evaporate.

dona stebbins said...

I was concerned about this, too. And it was made clear to those who objected to the law firm that this property could revert to an apartment house or a group home. Since this house sold for many dollars, it is to be hoped that the current owner will place the preservation of the property high on his or her priorities list. I would imagine that the rental units will be high dollar items.
One thing about spot zoning that I neglected to mention is the problem of setting a precedent in a certain area. Then, when the next request to spot zone comes in, it's a question of, "Well, he was allowed to do that with his property - why can't I do that with mine?" Sort of like dominoes -when one falls, the rest come tumbling after, and you have a neighborhood in decline. Even with a business like the law firm that would have had perhaps a minimal effect upon the neighborhood, it is still a business, a commercial enterprise. And it sets a precedent.

Treasure State Jew said...


Thanks again for posting here. Participation by candidates in this kind of forum helps with its legitimacy.

I appreciate such an attempt at consistency. However, I am not sure how consistent it really is. How many gracious, old homes on 3rd Avenue North are now legal offices? At least four?

Also, I am not sure that the math works out for your estimation. I don't know the details of the sale, but I assume that the home sold for somewhere around $350k and that they are planning for eight rental units. Under such a scenario, they will cash flow positive at less than $400 per month. (caveat; to make that calculation, I made a whole lot of assumptions that are probably not true.)

dona stebbins said...

We discussed the 3rd Avenue law offices, and the consensus was that the neighbors across the street and adjacent to the property in question did not want that type of encroachment on on 4th Avenue North. They were pretty passionate about it, and many of them spoke directly to the Commission asking that the rezone be denied. Our Neighborhood Council has no power to set policy. We serve as an advisory group, and based on the concerns of the neighborhood, may make recommendations. The City Commission may choose to follow our recommendations, or not.
In this case, it was clear to me that it was the residents who won the day. As a Council representative, I simply followed their testimony with a brief commentary about the dangers of spot zoning, and asking them to give careful consideration to their decision.
Regarding what will become of the property now, I think the significance of the investment will work toward its' preservation.
I would like more information about the number of units and the price of the rent before I comment further.
As I said, this was a difficult matter, but the residents determined the outcome. I hope they do not find it a cause for regret.

Treasure State Jew said...

Dona, thank you again for your posting here. I think that your willingness to make public comments in a forum like this is to your credit.

This post has received some attention by David over at the Greater Falls blog. Following up on the idea, he is sponsoring a voter's forum, in which Stebbins has already agreed to participate. Send questions to David, (david at greaterfalls dot com) or just post a comment to his blog. Great idea David, thanks!

GeeGuy said...

First of all, Dona is the only candidate for Mayor as far as I am concerned. But that's a question for another day.

Let's talk a little bit about zoning. When the notion of private property is so fundamental to our economic, political, and social system, why do we so casually accept the fact that there ought to be "zones" where some tinhorn dictator (not you, Dona) should get to decide what we can and cannot do with our property? Why have we accepted that we should be required to genuflect at the knees of local officials in order to get their 'permission' to conduct legal activities on real property we have purchased with our own capital? We are we so quick to forfeit our freedom to the "common good" as determined by the whims of the likes of Mayor Gray or Manager Lawton?

So you say, "By god, man. We must have zoning, or we'll have stores next to houses next to jails next to brothels." Oh, really?

First, did you know the City of Houston doesn't have zoning? They've done ok.

Second, why do we assume that a bunch of pinheads in the Civic Center can somehow do a better job of planning and allocating use than Adam Smith's "invisible hand?" Is it their track record of undeniable success? Hardly.

Third, I would venture to guess that the societal 'costs' of every jail next to someone's home (or next to the "Gateway to the Community") are way outweighed by the costs imposed on our economy by the necessity to go and beg for the right to do business, or build a bright purple house, or have a cow in my yard.

And I know Dona was only doing her job as a Neighborhood Council member, but we simply have to get away from this idea that non-stakeholders have some right to decide what I get to do with my property simply because they happen to walk by it on their way to work in the morning. (No offense, Aaron.)

Treasure State Jew said...


First of all, I did not object when the last owners of that home wished to sell their home to the business that was interested in the property. However, your point is more fundamental.

Why have zones? Simply because they are the rules of the game. All the property owners on the lower North side, myself included, purchased property here with the understanding that certain activity could, and could not, be permitted on that property.

I daresay that my property values are tied to the zoning system we have in place. Fundamentally, that is why I care about this situation.

This is no different than any other longstanding governmental restriction to property values.

In other instances, a lender always runs the risk that a borrower will legally skip out on the money owed to him through a bankruptcy filing. A landlord runs the risk of being stuck with a deadbeat tenant because residential rental laws favor the tenant over the property owner.

Those of us that have chosen to do business under such a situation do it with our eyes open. As long as the government consistently applies its interference in our property rights, we are all following the rules of the game and the situation is fair to all parties.

I guess that answers the question I originally posed in this post.