At the end of 2021, John Morse hoped he could breathe a well-earned sigh of relief.
It had been two tough years. The pandemic had pushed Celebrations—the wedding venue he and his wife Laurie had owned and operated for two decades in rural Caroline, New York—to the brink of ruin. But with public health restrictions disappearing and with brides and grooms planning nuptials once again, the Morses were ready to resume business.
“We have a beautiful piece of property. But we’re not a castle on the lake with marble columns,” he says. “There [are] wedding venues out there that are booked three, four years in advance. That’s not us. We’ve always had to work hard for the business that we have.”
Morse hoped that 2022 would be a normal, relatively drama-free year. That hope was dashed in November, when a little blue postcard arrived in the mail. Caroline’s zoning commission was inviting him to an informational meeting on its draft zoning code.
The card took Morse by surprise. He wasn’t aware that the town had a zoning commission. Caroline, after all, had no zoning code.
That makes it an extreme outlier in the United States.
Almost every other community in the country has a code that assigns each property in town to a zoning district and then lays out a long list of rules describing the kinds of buildings and activities allowed (or not allowed) there.
Proponents see zoning as an uncontroversial means of keeping glue factories away from homes, keeping strip clubs away from schools, and generally protecting things everyone likes: open space, property values, the environment, and more.
But ever-mounting home prices and a growing number of stifled small business owners are prompting a critical rethink of just how useful or necessary this mess of red tape and regulation really is.
Once an afterthought, zoning has become the hot-button issue in city halls and state capitals across the country. The debate is increasingly about how best to liberalize the rules that are on the books.
But in Caroline, that national debate is now playing out in reverse.
This was ostensibly a dispute about traffic, environmental protection, sightlines, and neighborhood character. It quickly became a conflict over class and class aesthetics. The pro-zoning residents were, in many cases, current and former employees of nearby Cornell University. They had a very specific vision of what the town should look like, and that vision often clashed with what people were doing, or might one day do, with their property. If Caroline’s special character needed legal protections or legal limits on landowners’ property rights, they reasoned, then so be it.
But for Morse, the freedom to do what he wants on his own land is part of what makes Caroline special. Far from protecting the town’s character, zoning is a threat to it. He’s not the only one to feel this way.
After receiving the blue postcard, he started to call around to other businesses in the area to see what they’d heard and what they were thinking. “Most didn’t know about it; none of them wanted it,” says Morse. “People are going to lose their freedoms on their properties.”
Within a few weeks, he’d helped organize a coalition of hundreds of Caroline farmers, business owners, builders, and ordinary residents who saw the proposed code as a threat to their plans and freedoms.
Their opposition would turn what could have been a dry planning exercise into a high-stakes, often highly emotional fight. On road signs and at frigid winter protests, anti-zoners have been repeating a motto: “Zoning kills dreams.”
The debate that has consumed Caroline was sparked by a dispute over a single property.
Ken Miller, a hay farmer and Marine veteran, owns about 30 acres of land in town. In 2019, real estate firm Franklin Land Associates approached him and asked if he’d be willing to sell some of his acreage for a potential commercial development.”
Things were pretty tight when they came to us,” says Miller. The always-precarious farming business was getting harder and harder for the septuagenarian to manage, both financially and physically. He’d recently had knee surgery and had been working at a nearby hardware store to help make ends meet.
Such situations are common in the area. Particularly in the dairy business, agricultural consolidation has made most small, locally owned farms unprofitable. One way these farmers manage to stay in business is by selling off some of their marginal acreage for development. That gives them enough money to pay their property taxes while still keeping their prime farmland under plow.
That was Miller’s plan. If Franklin was willing to pay commercial real estate prices for the land, he’d even be able to retire with a bit of a nest egg. He and his wife could afford to take long-deferred trips together.
The trouble for Miller was that the party ultimately interested in his land was a controversial one: Dollar General.
The low-cost general store is a fixture in poorer rural areas, where it’s often the only food store around. For the people who shop there, it can be an essential source of daily necessities. Having one in Caroline would save people the need to drive farther to shop at a store that was more expensive.
Critics say Dollar General drives out local competitors, sells unhealthy food, pays low wages, and generally diminishes an area’s character. These criticisms, particularly the last one, resonated with one set of Caroline residents.
For most of its 200-year history, Caroline has been a small agricultural town. But a large segment of its 3,368 residents consists of current or former faculty and staff at Cornell University, located just up the road in nearby Ithaca.
Many of these residents like Caroline precisely because it doesn’t have lots of chain stores and commercial strips. They saw in Dollar General a harbinger of the suburban sprawl they had moved to town to avoid—and they were determined to stop it.
In February 2020, Franklin, under contract to buy Miller’s land, submitted the necessary documents to the town government to get approval for a Dollar General.
While Caroline doesn’t have a zoning code, it does have a comprehensive plan—sort of a vision document for the town—that calls for protecting local businesses and farmland. It also has a review board that is tasked with ensuring larger developments conform to that comprehensive plan.
On the board at the time of Franklin’s application was Ellen Harrison, an environmental scientist and former director of a waste management institute at Cornell. She said Franklin’s proposal for a large commercial development presented a major dilemma. Dollar General wasn’t a local business and it would be paving over existing farmland.
“I could not affirm that it was consistent with the comprehensive plan….I couldn’t say yes,” she says. “On the other hand, I couldn’t say no. Without zoning, there is no way to say no.”
Harrison and like-minded residents felt they had to act fast if they were going to keep the store and others like it out of town.
The March 2020 meeting where the review board would consider the Dollar General proposal was canceled because of COVID-19. By April, the town board was drafting a development moratorium that would halt approvals of any commercial projects for 180 days. In June, the town board approved the moratorium.
Town Supervisor Mark Witmer, an ornithologist and occasional Cornell lecturer, told the local Tompkins Weekly the moratorium wasn’t about the Dollar General per se. It was, he said, about giving the town breathing room to finish a comprehensive plan update that was underway.
Still, an undeniable effect of the moratorium was that the Dollar General project was effectively dead.
Franklin Land Associates felt its project was being singled out. An April 2020 letter from the firm’s lawyers to Witmer called the moratorium “stupefying” and potentially illegal.
It was a big loss for Miller too, who had to forfeit the $150,000 he would have gotten from selling his land. The fight took a heavy toll on his and his wife’s relationship with some of their neighbors, several of whom had signed a petition opposing the Dollar General.
“We were hurt, and we were hurt financially,” he says. “That’s a lot of money.”
The moratorium also presented a problem for the town’s growth critics. The building freeze was supposed to last only 180 days while a new comprehensive plan was finalized. But it wasn’t as if that plan was going to stop future Dollar Generals. For that, the town needed zoning.
So in December, the town board extended the moratorium for another 180 days. It’s since been extended three more times. It’s not set to lapse until February 2024. Meanwhile, in January 2021, the updated comprehensive plan was finally adopted. And the month after that, the town board voted to create a commission to get to work drafting a zoning code.
Over the next two years, the Caroline zoning commission’s draft code would go through lots of tweaks and revisions. But the substance remained largely unchanged. The plan was to separate the town into three types of districts.
Caroline’s pockets of existing development were to be zoned as “hamlets” where housing, home businesses, and limited commercial uses were allowed. There would also be a “focused commercial” district where formula retail (a.k.a. chain stores), storage facilities, and other larger businesses would be permitted. Then the vast majority of the town’s land was grouped into a “rural/agriculture” district where both residential development and nonfarm businesses were strictly curtailed.
For the people on the zoning commission, this represented a well-crafted balance between protecting the town from rampant development and letting people use their land as they always had.”
We are trying to craft a zoning plan that is appropriate for Caroline that puts some important safeguards in place but does not put undue burdens on land owners,” says Bill Podulka, a retired physicist at Cornell and member of Caroline’s zoning commission.
In relative terms, the 137-page draft code is a lot simpler than what you might find in a major city, where the zoning code runs for thousands of pages and creates dozens of special districts.
Caroline’s draft code was nevertheless 137 pages of regulations that didn’t exist before.”
When you look at the restrictions that come into play, there’s a whole giant table of what you’re allowed to have or [not] have,” Morse says. “You can have this kind of business because we like it, you can’t have this kind of business because we don’t like it.”
One thing Morse had always planned for his business was building rental cabins on a vacant field he owned next to his venue, where wedding parties could stay after the ceremony. But “campgrounds” are flatly prohibited in the focused commercial area that would cover his property.
As Morse got out the word about the zoning code, more people realized their own plans for their land would be banned or subject to a lot more rules going forward.
That included Hannah Crispell Wylie, whose family had maintained a 1,000-acre farm in Caroline for the past 175 years. One idea her family had to prop up their always-precarious agriculture business would be setting aside some unfarmable land for a small campground or R.V. park.
Without zoning, Wylie would have been within her rights to just go ahead and do that. Under the draft zoning code, she’d have to get a special use permit. And that’s no small order.
Getting that permit would require Wylie to file applications with the town’s review board, which would hold a public hearing, where neighbors would have an opportunity to complain about the project. After a hearing, the board would have months to decide whether Wylie’s campground would disturb the character of the neighborhood, be consistent with the comprehensive plan, damage the environment, impact adjacent property owners, or strain public services. At the end of that process, the board could put a lot of expensive conditions on the proposed campground to mitigate its impact on that long list of things. Or the board could just say no.
Podulka insists the review process isn’t intended to be a roadblock.
“Review doesn’t mean you can’t do it, it just means a meeting, or two, or three, yes,” he says. “You may or may not have to make some adjustments to meet some of the desires of the rest of the community.”
Wylie says that the time and expense of the review process could be enough to deter her from even applying for a permit in the first place. She could end up spending a few hundred (or a few thousand) dollars and several months getting permission to start a business that might not work.
Without the ability to easily and cheaply experiment with new ideas, her family’s continued operation and ownership of their farmland was imperiled.
“We have something so beautiful to take care of and we’d like to keep it,” she says.
Planning boards and commissions that enforce zoning laws unsurprisingly often become dominated by people who have pretty restrictive views of what people should be allowed to do on their properties.
Caroline already got a taste of that when the town stopped the Dollar General project.
The town’s anti-zoning activists like to point out that the store would have been built just a few hundred yards from a review board member’s house, which they say is evidence of how personalized these things can become.
“You have to ask permission from people you don’t like and who don’t like you,” says Bruno Schickel, a local developer and member of Caroline’s anti-zoning coalition.
Even when personal feelings or self-interest don’t creep into the zoning process, unintended consequences will still abound, Schickel argues.
Take the village of Boiceville, a Schickel development of 140 closely spaced, fairytale-like tiny homes whose design was inspired by the children’s book Miss Rumphius. The clustered development of the cottages means Boiceville shelters about 10 percent of Caroline’s population on just 40 acres. The economical use of land and lack of entitlement costs also keeps Boiceville more affordable than it otherwise would be.
In many ways, Boiceville is in keeping with the spirit of much of Caroline’s draft zoning code, which calls for the preservation of open space and affordable housing. But the village’s design would be prohibited by the letter of the code, which limits residential development in rural areas to an average of one dwelling unit per three acres. If Boiceville were built today, it would have to consume 10 times as much land. The more land a development requires, the more it ends up costing.
As 2022 wore on, the zoning commission continued its work of refining its draft code. Meanwhile, in the town, anti-zoning residents spun up a guerrilla activist campaign against the commission’s work.
Signs went up: “Grandma Hates Zoning,” “Caroline Forever Unzoned,” and so on. Residents held protests at the town hall where farmers brought their horses painted with similar anti-zoning slogans.
The fight got pretty personal pretty quickly.
When Harrison put up a sign supporting zoning in her yard, she says, someone defecated on it. The Ithaca Voice reported that the chair of the zoning commission received an emailed death threat.
On the flip side, anti-zoning residents argued that the zoning commissioners and town board members were being openly contemptuous of their concerns and flatly unwilling to listen.
The town board, they noted, stuck to Zoom meetings in a town where many residents didn’t have high-speed internet.
During one meeting where anti-zoning residents invoked their families’ long history in the town, a town board member said they were sick of hearing about people’s heritage. In response, Wylie put up a road sign saying, “Piss on zoning, not our heritage.”
When anti-zoning people raised general concerns about zoning, pro-zoners told them they needed to be specific about their complaints. When they raised specific concerns, the response was often that the code was only a draft and the offending provisions might not end up being included. Anti-zoning activists could be forgiven for feeling gaslit.
To an extent, the pro- and anti-zoning camps could be grafted onto preexisting political differences. Supporters of the draft code skewed liberal, while the town’s conservatives were more likely to oppose it.
But the class dynamic of the zoning fight scrambled these neat partisan lines. The anti-zoning coalition included folks like Morse, whose wedding venue was hosting a fundraiser for a crisis pregnancy center the week this reporter was there. It also included Tonya VanCamp, a nonprofit worker, whose home sported a gay pride flag and a “Black Lives Matter” sign. Both were united by a fear of what zoning would prevent them from doing with their single biggest asset: their land.
On the flip side, people who might have made common cause with the anti-zoners in different circumstances decided to stay on the sidelines. Sara Bronin, a Cornell professor who founded the zoning reform group Desegregate Connecticut, said in an email she was approached about getting involved in Caroline’s debate but declined.
The town’s debate had less to do with the specifics of a zoning code, and more to do with “rural stubbornness,” she wrote.
Yet the hypothetical concerns they were raising with zoning were also critiques that a growing number of academics, policy wonks, and activists were making about the very real effects of zoning in communities across the country. Caroline’s seemingly parochial fight brought the town into a very national conversation.
Caroline’s pro-zoning officials and residents frequently complained their critics were exaggerating how burdensome the draft code was, when they even bothered to raise specific complaints at all.
The anti-zoners’ objections all seem reasonable enough to M. Nolan Gray.
Gray doesn’t live in Caroline. He lives in Los Angeles, where he works as research director for the housing advocacy group California YIMBY. (He’s also an occasional contributor to Reason.) This is one of the organizations to grow out of the original “yes in my backyard” (YIMBY) movement of San Francisco Bay Area residents who got fed up with spending more and more of their money on increasingly scarce housing. Beginning in the mid-2010s, they launched a crusade against the zoning restrictions they blamed for the Golden State’s astronomical rents and home prices.
YIMBYs face an uphill battle in most urban areas, where long and extensive zoning codes ban apartment buildings across most of the city. The movement has nevertheless won over a lot of converts in these expensive cities with a message that housing would be cheaper if it were legal to build more of it.
Policy makers across the country are increasingly talking like they agree with that idea, and even adopting policy reforms designed to allow for more building.
Three states, including California, have passed laws legalizing at least duplexes statewide. A handful of other states will probably follow suit this year. President Joe Biden’s White House has called out restrictive zoning laws in strong terms. (Biden’s actual policies don’t do much to address the problem.)
Gray himself wrote a book arguing that zoning should be not just liberalized but abolished. That’s a radical position even within the YIMBY movement. It can seem hopelessly utopian when you consider how expansive and restrictive the average city’s zoning code already is.
But the message resonated in Caroline, where residents don’t live under zoning now and many want to keep it that way.
After discovering Gray’s book, some of the town’s anti-zoning activists reached out and asked if he’d take a look at Caroline’s proposed draft code. What Gray saw was a restrictive mess that would bring to Caroline problems that zoning had created everywhere else.
“It’s untethered from any actual impact that’s facing Caroline,” he says.
The code’s requirements for site plan review and special use permits would be incredibly burdensome for the low-impact small businesses that would likely open in the town. The minimum lot sizes and density restrictions would drive up housing costs. Even if a restriction wasn’t in the code now, it could easily be added later.
“Once these codes are adopted, it’s a one-way ratchet that only gets stricter, that only gets more exclusionary, that puts jurisdictions in a tighter and tighter straitjacket,” says Gray.
At the invitation of Caroline’s anti-zoners, Gray went out to the town in November 2022 to make the case for why adopting zoning would be a mistake.
The night before the 2022 midterm elections, he gave a presentation to a packed community center where he laid out the general case against zoning and what it would do to Caroline specifically.
He pulled up a map of the town dotted with red-colored parcels. Members of the audience gasped when he explained that each red parcel was a property that would be made nonconforming by the draft code. That meant even minor changes to the property would have to go through site plan review and more substantial expansions or changes of use might be banned entirely.
Next, he brought up pictures of businesses and buildings in town, and explained how the draft zoning code would make their various features illegal too.
“So much of what’s in this code is stuff other cities are trying to get rid of,” said Gray during his talk. Caroline need not make the same mistakes.
Gray’s talk was meant to be a calm presentation of zoning’s problems. It quickly became a venting session for the assembled crowd of mostly anti-zoning residents.
The first question in a Q&A session was from one man who asked Gray what the penalties would be for “civil disobedience” with the zoning code. Another woman asked whether you could keep zoning code officers off your property if they didn’t have a warrant.
When Katherine Goldberg, a town board member considered to be a moderate on the zoning code, stood up to urge people to trust the process, many responded with angry shouts.
Caroline’s anti-zoning activists had planned to have Gray speak during public comment at the town board meeting a few days later. That meeting was abruptly canceled just before his visit. The explanation was that Witmer, the pro-zoning town supervisor, was taking a long-planned trip to Hawaii but had neglected to inform the town clerk ahead of time.
For anti-zoning residents, it was just one more piece of evidence their government was totally uninterested in hearing their concerns.
On the night of the now-canceled board meeting, they braved the freezing cold weather to make their case heard in front of the empty town hall.
Morse got in front of the crowd and hoisted a thick petition of 1,200 signatures demanding that any vote on a zoning code be delayed until after Caroline’s 2023 municipal elections. Zoning was not what people wanted, he said.
Next came Schickel, who earned cheers when he informed the crowd that two anti-zoning town board candidates had won their election in the nearby town of Hector, which was having a similar fight over whether to adopt a zoning code.
The crowd periodically broke out in chants of “no zoning.” Some people in the back cracked open beers. Across the street, a large trailer bore a huge display of lights and illuminated letters reading, “Caroline Forever Unzoned.”
It was an oddly emotional scene for a rally about zoning. Most people save their passionate advocacy for issues like abortion or gun control, not special use permits and setback requirements.
The general view of zoning as a dry, technical, apolitical issue is one reason it’s persisted unquestioned for so long. That probably explains why Caroline’s officials were blindsided by the huge, angry reaction to their zoning code proposal. To this day, it seems like they don’t quite understand the emotions they’ve kicked up.
One person at the town hall rally who did understand them was Amy Dickinson, even if she thought some of the anger expressed by anti-zoners wasn’t always productive.
Dickinson is a nationally syndicated advice columnist who makes a living helping people work through interpersonal problems. She’s also married to Schickel—and like her husband, she’s dead set against zoning.
Dickinson grew up on a dairy farm in a nearby town where, as in Caroline, most of the farms gradually went out of business. For farmers losing their livelihood, the ability to hold onto their property and leave it to their children becomes all the more important, she explains. So the idea that the town would then slap a bunch of rules on the one thing you still control felt both threatening and offensive.
“People take it personally,” she says. “Your land is all you have.”
Zoning Kills Dreams
Houston, Texas, is the one major city in the United States that never adopted a zoning code. Three times Houston has put zoning up to a referendum, and three times voters have rejected it.
In Gray’s anti-zoning book, Arbitrary Lines, there’s a picture of a Houston activist from one of those referendum campaigns, marching with a sign that reads “Zoning Kills Dreams.” That would become Caroline anti-zoners’ rallying cry, much to the frustration of those who support zoning.
“There’s a sign that says ‘Zoning Kills Dreams.’ Well, what is the dream you have that you think is not allowed? They don’t say,” says Harrison, the review board member.
It speaks to a difference in mentality and material circumstances of the two sides.
Caroline’s zoning supporters are typically either active or retired professionals. They live in the town and love it as much as anyone. But they also have no need to make a living there. That position lends itself to more restrictive notions of what should be allowed in Caroline: some homes, some businesses, some farms, and a lot of protected views and open space.
For these people, a zoning code is a pretty straightforward way of protecting the things they like about Caroline while banning the things they think will spoil it. And if anti-zoners are worried about losing the ability to do something on their land, they should say as much, and come to the table to get protections included in the draft code.
Things aren’t so simple for Caroline’s anti-zoners. The necessity of making a living from their land means they have to be pretty open and adaptable to change. They often don’t know what the future will bring. It’s often impossible for them to know how they might want to use their properties in the future.
Morse notes that his wedding venue had a couple of slow years right before the pandemic. If business dries up, he’ll have no choice but to sell Celebrations and move on. The more restrictions a zoning code puts on the use of his property, the fewer buyers there will be for it. That will tank the sale price of his land, leaving him with less to start a new business or retire on.
Freedom to do what he wants on his property is a valuable asset all on its own, and that freedom can’t coexist with zoning.
Caroline’s zoning debate is ongoing. The zoning commission approved a final draft code at the end of March 2023. The town board has started to hold hearings on it. Anything they approve will also have to be reviewed by the county government and various state agencies.
New York state law forbids zoning from being put before voters as a referendum. Peter Hoyt, a former town board member who opposes zoning, tells Reason that if a referendum were possible, it would probably be a pretty close vote.
Whatever the outcome, the zoning debate raging in Caroline is revealing. It shows how even in a small community without major enterprises or serious growth pressures, planners can’t adequately capture and account for everything people might want to do with their land.
There’s a gap between what zoners can do and what they imagine they can design. That knowledge problem hasn’t stopped cities far larger and more complex than Caroline from trying to scientifically sort themselves with zoning. They’ve developed quite large and complex problems as a result.
Caroline’s anti-zoners see the problems zoning has created elsewhere. They’re committed to fighting tooth and nail to preserve a freedom the rest of the country has lost.
They have dreams, and zoning might kill them.