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The Georgetown "Apostles":

This is cool.

Gary Imhoff (mail) (www):
It's interesting, but I'm not really sure how "cool" it would be to be a neighbor of nine spoiled brats who just want to party and who are indulged by their wealthy parents.

The problem, of course, is that the government accords privileges to "religious" organizations, but then refuses to define what a religious organization is clearly enough to distinguish between a legitimate group and a scam. (This bypasses for the moment the atheist complaint that all religious organizations are scams; I'm speaking about the "religious" organization whose leaders and members are all aware that it is a scam.)

The government has no incentive to step into this controversy as long as it is only about a rowdy and disruptive household. My suggestion is that the neighbors take the issue to the Department of Tax and Revenue, which does have an incentive to get involved. If the Apostles are fraudulently claiming a tax exemption on the property as a religious organization, the city has a financial incentive to deny them that tax exemption, and that ruling can then be more broadly applied. On the other hand, if the group isn't claiming a religious tax exemption, their failure to do so is proof that they aren't serious about being a religion. Perhaps they could claim to be devotees of Bacchus, but at that point even Georgetown University, which is a Catholic institution, might question them.
11.11.2006 11:13am
joe (mail):
From the perspective of a person who works full-time, is in law school in the evening in DC, and has children at home, this is definitely not cool.
11.11.2006 11:32am
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
I do think that it was clever. It is close enough to legal to make it interesting, esp. here.

I am reminded of when I was ordained in college by the Ministers of the New Truth. The guy who ordained me was serious enough about it that he married a couple of couples and would sometimes go around wearing a clerical collar (this was about 1970). Later though I wondered whether that was just marketing, as he made $25 on everyone he signed up (and then a bit on those downline of those too).

I will admit a bit of envy though, with this guy's father (worth apparently $4 billion) buying him a $2.5 million dollar house to live in while in college. And I don't think that eight is really crowding in a house that size (3,600 sq. feet). Compare that with the quarters inhabited by most college students.
11.11.2006 11:37am
Va Med Mal Lawyer (mail):
Count me as one who does not think this is that cool. Obviously, there are some serious legal issues here involving the interplay between government and religion. Perhaps the ultimate result of this spat may be that the government ends the exemption for religious groups entirely. I'm enough of a libertarian to think there may be some benefit in that, but I also hate to think that 15 nuns somewhere in DC may be evicted if that comes to pass.

What strikes me as interesting about this story is the students themselves and their parents. The student doesn't like reading all that much, but he goes to an expensive, allegedly high quality institution (Please note I am a 1994 graduate of Georgetown). Why? What is the purpose of his four years? What intellectual development is taking place? If it is friendships and bonding (through alcohol and pornography), then why waste time not reading Aristotle and Shakespeare? I'm not a puritan. I just think the Animal House aspect of college has become too predominant.

It is not enough for this student to live in a 2.4 million dollar home with a pool, but he and his friends have to make a mockery of the legal system and religion as well. Do the parents object? No, they go along with the charade. Did these parents ever tell these kids, "No," growing up? Were they ever taught that there are some things they can't have? For me part of the benefit of this time in my life and shortly thereafter was learning to survive without much and making ends meet on my own. I suspect that isn't happening here. Doubtless, these guys will get great paying jobs after graduation and attribute it all to their hard work and brilliance. I wonder if the parents would be so hostile to zoning laws if an adult business opened directly across the street from their two acres of single family suburbia.

With regard to the neighbors, it always struck me as odd that they did not know the university was there when the bought their houses. Did they factor the presence of thousands of undergraduates when they bought their homes? I suppose the drunkenness has gotten worse and in the distant past many Georgetown students commuted, but still my sympathy is limited by this fact.
11.11.2006 11:47am
Harry Eagar (mail):
If it's 'cool,' by which I suppose you mean desirable, then what if it was a bunch of poor people organizing in order to put a roof over their heads in an area where rents are set way over market by government pay scales that are not influenced by supply and demand?
11.11.2006 12:01pm
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
Obviously, a father who is willing to give his son a $2.4 million dollar house is not into depriving him. There seem to be two different philosphies of raising kids with wealth. You can either give them everything that they could possibly want. Or you can raise them to respect the value of work and the dollar. When in college, somehow my fraternity attracted kids from the later families, whereas my brother's fraternity, a block down, attracted kids from the former. But the former just doesn't work to maintain that wealth for very many generations.
11.11.2006 12:03pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
I don't take any position on this guy's relationship with his father. But if the government feels like giving special privileges to certain private organizations that call themselves "religions," then it's only poetic justice when those whom that excludes learn how the system works.
11.11.2006 12:07pm
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
Harry,

That is a good question. A couple of years ago, a Hispanic clan rented the two bedroom condo right below us in Dillon, CO. They had maybe ten people living there, whereas the association would only allow four. And they used up about six parking places, instead of the prescribed two. So, they got evicted in short order. (And, yes, I was one of those complaining - after not being able to find a parking placelate at night on multiple occasions).

In this case though, it was the condo association bylaws that were violated, and they don't have a religious exception. I suspect that the religious exception here might have been a result of being so close to a large Catholic university.
11.11.2006 12:09pm
Brian Kennedy (mail):

"Meanwhile, the students are trying to spiff up. On Oct. 16, they amended their name to Apostles of Peace and Unity. A U.S. flag has replaced the skull-and-crossbones banner, and there has been complete quiet since parents' weekend last month . . ."


Maybe their actions will grow to conform more closely to their profession than might otherwise have been the case. Stranger and worse things have happened.
11.11.2006 12:09pm
joe (mail):
The government people give special privileges to religions because society as a whole believes that the religions contribute to the good of society. The GT students are not "learning how the system works"; they are merely manipulating the system.

Sasha, it sounds like you think it is cool because you are against any special privileges to organized religions, and anyone who uses the system despite the intent of the law is cool. There are reasons why certain societal norms are not laid out explicitly in some code.
11.11.2006 12:28pm
Waldensian (mail):
I think this whole thing is actually a plot by Bernstein to depress real estate values in the area.

Sigh. The only thing worse than these spoiled private school kids is their stuffed-shirt neighbors.

They're the ones who moved next to a University, no doubt saving money on their house purchase for that very reason. Yet still they exhibit that odd philosophy that is apparently the successor to American individualism: namely, the belief that one's neighbors are somehow obliged to "maintain property values" in the neighborhood.

Actually, one's neighbors are obliged to obey the law. Good luck proving these kids aren't. The neighbors should have written better laws.

Actually, there is one thing worse than these latte-sipping, harumphing, pearl-clutching Georgetowners. There's a special place in Hell reserved for the people who move next to an airport, and then immediately start complaining about how the noise is lowering their property values.
11.11.2006 12:49pm
John Burgess (mail) (www):
People in the area are both annoyed at the bad behavior and worried that zoning laws will in the future be undermined by unscrupulous property owners.

People in the neighborhood comment that the parties--four or five nights a week--start at 22:00 (when residential parking restrictions are lifted) and end around 04:00. The parties are loud, disrupting normal attempts at things like sleep for the non-party-goers. The problems with people leaving the parties and vomiting or pissing on the complainants' property adds a particular tang to their annoyance, as does the yelling on the streets as the party-goers stagger around looking for their vehicles.

Those neighbors, having paid something similar for their own houses, have an understandable desire to not see their properties grossly devalued by a loophole in the law. As the article notes, they fear that people will buy houses and establish new "religious organizations" along the lines of "The Church of 1333 35th St.", "The Church of 1335 35th St.", "The Church of 1339 35th St.", etc. and end up making life more difficult than it already is for people living in the area. If you think that the DC government favors residents of Georgetown over less affluent residents, you've clearly never owned property there. G'town, BTW, was one of the parts of DC that had serious lead problems in its drinking water which the DC gov't took years to resolve, after the other parts of the city got fixed.

Disclaimers: I attended GU in the late-60s, early-70s. My wife has a house a couple of blocks from the subject house (and hears the noise, too).
11.11.2006 12:53pm
liberty (mail) (www):
It isn't the exception for religion that bothers me as much as the zoning laws. If it were a private co-op system, the religious and not-so-religious organizations would have to go to the co-op board to make the case for their exception. Because zoning is handled through government, the exceptions are decided by arbitrary ideas about morality, discrimination and separation of church and state that have nothing to do with what the community desires in their neighborhood.
11.11.2006 12:59pm
liberty (mail) (www):
Waldensian said: apparently the successor to American individualism: namely, the belief that one's neighbors are somehow obliged to "maintain property values" in the neighborhood.

Um... no, I think its much worse in Europe where they believe in community values not individualism. Most places in the US you can live how you like, fly your flag, do you thing. Only recently have the PC police and communitarians made it difficult. In Europe they have code books full of community guidelines and they would rather your grannie die of heat exhaustion than allow one of those heinous nasty American air conditioners into the neighborhood.
11.11.2006 1:04pm
John Burgess (mail) (www):
Waldensian: You seem not aware that the university dates from 1789; Georgetown as a political entity, from the 1600s. Some of the houses are contemporaneous, and of course many were built later. The airport analogy you provide doesn't quite fit.

Further, circumstances have changed. Until post-WWII, students were all required to live on campus, thus did not encumber residents in the area other than as passers-by. As an elite school, students tended to be more-or-less well-behaved, also not encumbering residents.

Two of my brothers and I shared a townhouse while we were all studying there. We had parties, but we also tended to keep the obnoxious part down, at least after the first time the police came in response to noise complaints.

Living near a university clearly has implications. People living there recognize that there are certain things that come along with the proximity. Those things can be annoying, but are mostly taken in stride--most of the residents of the area, after all, were once university students. It doesn't take a "pearl twister" to object to obnoxious behavior, nor to see a major investment (most residents are not worth $4 billion) endangered by someone's following the letter, if certainly not the spirit of well-intended laws.

G'town is no longer the place where government employees can afford to live, unless they're rich Congressmen like Kerry (on O St.) or Cabinet Secretaries, though a few remain from when the area was not so desirable. Instead, they're mostly CEOs, lawyers, and lobbyists. Maybe not your favorite people, either, but they still have some basic rights.
11.11.2006 1:13pm
Sarah (mail) (www):
My great-aunt lived in Georgetown, in a small apartment -- she couldn't afford to move anywhere else, because she and her husband got it sometime around 1946, and the rent was very, very low. She seemed to think the neighborhood was getting better, compared to the post-war period, but hey. Most of her neighbors (even in the complex) were at least professors at the school (that's why they moved there; my great-uncle taught at Georgetown law), and few if any of the rest seemed to live the under-GS15 lifestyle.

I'm curious as to why Georgetown has such a low number for "unrelated"/"non-religious" roommates. If it's safe to have an extended family of [some number, not cited here] and it's safe for 15 members of your neighborhood "weird sect" (which could I'm sure fit everyone's definition of a religion) and it's safe for 15 placid nuns, why only 6 random people?

If anything, people ought to be talking about that zoning ordinance. It sounds very much like an anti-college student one -- and the real way that these kids are getting around the spirit of that law, is by having Daddy buy them a multi-million dollar house. The religion thing is mostly irking their neighbors not because it's blasphemous, or even because it's fundamentally dishonest -- it's because it's allowing 9 (gasp, shudder) unrelated college students live together in their neighborhood for what, in this situation, simply won't be more than another 5 or 6 years.

And if the ordinance hadn't been written like that (they could just as easily have set a permit system, or a grandfather clause -- instead they wrote it giving a blanket exemption to "religious organizations") then there wouldn't be a dummy religion to contend with. And what's really funny to me is that the aforementioned Daddy could have bought off the neighbors in the standard way and the kids would still be living there, again if this not-entirely-well-thought-out ordinance weren't in place.

It reminds me of the family businesses in quasi-residential buildings in my little town -- they pushed for parking restrictions so they themselves could park outside their houses/businesses, and they fought against anyone being able to build parking lots (would destroy the "old time" feel of downtown) and now they're upset because their customers go to the shopping malls way outside of town (because they can park within immediately walking distance.)
11.11.2006 1:50pm
Kate1999 (mail):
I agree that this isn't cool: the rich kid has dad buy him a $2.4 million house, and then he he just *has to* lie about being part of a "religion" so he can have more people living at the house to make his parties more convenient. Since when is lying to the government cool?

Maybe dad can just buy the house next door for the other friends.
11.11.2006 2:22pm
Henry Schaffer (mail):
Gary writes:

If the Apostles are fraudulently claiming a tax exemption on the property as a religious organization, the city has a financial incentive to deny them that tax exemption, and that ruling can then be more broadly applied. On the other hand, if the group isn't claiming a religious tax exemption, their failure to do so is proof that they aren't serious about being a religion.

I'm not sure that the owner of the property has the right to claim a tax exemption if a "religious organization" uses the property. But, to me, the larger question is why must a religious group claim a tax exemption?

Why can't a religious organization refuse to do so without endangering other perogatives that are available to them?
11.11.2006 2:39pm
Mike Keenan:
The obvious problem here for the neighbors is that even if they disallowed them the religious exemption (which they should not IMO), there would still be 6 loud obnoxious spoiled brats living there. The noise would not decrease. The number of residents would probably not even decrease (who is going to prove who lives where).

Don't they have an enforceable noise ordinance?
11.11.2006 2:58pm
logicnazi (mail) (www):
I think this is awesome as well.

Firstly because I think it illustrates the central problem with special privleges for religion. Though one might try and justify these privleges on the grounds that religion has a positive effect on society (I'm far from convinced) that doesn't really fly because the same privleges go to satanists or whatever groups you disapprove of.

Ultimately a religious group is just a group that believes things and has a common goal. The idea that some beliefs should get special privleges because they are about god is just stupid. Worse getting the government involved in deciding what is and isn't a religion seems to me to violate the spirit of the first ammendment.

--

As for the actual restriction the students are violating I'm with Sasha here, I think it smells like an anti-college ordinance. Zoning laws are unfortunatly necessery but I find it disgusting when they are used to enforce the communities moral/cultural prejudices.

Obviously if 9 related people can live together the concern is not safety. Rather the obvious message is that families are a good and appropriate way to live but living in a commune or with your college buddies is not. I understand that noise and disturbances are real concerns but if that is really the issue it should be possible to enforce via laws on these specific points?

Ultimately it is the other resident's comments that the kids are good neighbors that ultimately makes up my mind. Frankly many people are biased against groups of college kids. They see them as no good kids engaging in a hedonistic lifestyle and somehow feel they shouldn't be able to 'get away' with drinking and partying. In other words they disapprove of the lifestyle. As a result people will often not give college kids the same leeway they would give a family who produced the same amounts of noise.
11.11.2006 3:00pm
logicnazi (mail) (www):
I think my point is proved by the references to 'spoiled brats' in this thread. Clearly the strong feeling against these kids is at least partially motivated by a disapproval of their lifestyle.
11.11.2006 3:04pm
Will Wilkinson:
D.C. has a domestic partnership law. Perhaps they could all become domestic partners, and count as "related" for zoning purposes.
11.11.2006 3:18pm
liberty (mail) (www):
"Zoning laws are unfortunatly necessery"

why do say that? why laws and not private agreements?
11.11.2006 3:51pm
Jay Myers:
Sasha Volokh:

I don't take any position on this guy's relationship with his father. But if the government feels like giving special privileges to certain private organizations that call themselves "religions,"

Government, and the society they represent, "feels like" giving special privileges to organizations that *are* religious because such organizations hold a special position in our civilization. They hold this special position because they tend to make their fellow community members better people and citizens through example and instruction and are associated with charitable acts that provide a significant benefit to society. Spoiled brats giving some of daddy's money to charity just don't have the same impact.

then it's only poetic justice when those whom that excludes learn how the system works.

Wow, that's a cynical opinion you have of the law. It's all just a game designed for the benefit of those who can finesse the rules? If I believed that then I'm not sure what could possibly motivate me to involve myself with the legal profession and its practitioners.
11.11.2006 4:16pm
David Schraub (mail) (www):
Georgetown students making up their own religion? Feh!

Carleton College students tried that 40 years ago. And our religion still exists!

As to the legal question, doesn't it come down to whether or not the religious beliefs are "sincerely held"? Based on the article, this "religious organization" is not considered to be religious even by its "adherents", but is just a facade for purely secular interests. Admittedly, the "sincerely held" test can get very blurry very easily, but this seems to be quite a clear cut case of it not being met.
11.11.2006 4:21pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
The whole idea of giving special privileges to religions is illegitimate. If people can undermine those sorts of laws in creative ways, more power to them. There are a number of other ways to take care of this problem, for instance:

1. Don't make any exceptions to the six-unrelated-person rule, for religions or anyone else.

(I still have a problem with the six-unrelated-person rule, because it enshrines a pro-related-cohabitation norm. But at least it wouldn't give special religious privileges.)

2. Make an exception for any charitable organizations that have the appropriate status under the tax code. Part 1 of this policy ("charitable organizations") would include not only churches but also comparable secular organizations. (In fact, maybe the non-religious part is already constitutionally required? (I'm not a First Amendment expert.) So perhaps the Georgetown ordinance would already cover a Secular Humanist Collective.) Part 2 of this policy would incorporate whatever protections against abuse already exist in the tax code.

(I would still have problems with this, because it would enshrine a pro-charitable policy.)

3. (This is the most obvious bit:) Have a strictly enforced noise ordinance. This would also put the kibosh on whirling dervishes, muezzins, loudspeaker-toting preachers, etc. Like, actually tailor the ordinance to the legitimate goals it's suppose achieve!
11.11.2006 4:36pm
Dave Turner (mail):
Apostles of O'Neill? They could have saved themselves a lot of hassle by choosing a legitimate religion: Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

His Noodly Appendage touches us all. Amen.
11.11.2006 4:38pm
Kate1999 (mail):
Sasha,

Do you live in the District? If you want the DC police to enforce noise ordinances effectively, you're going to have to pay for it.
11.11.2006 4:45pm
Public_Defender (mail):
In every accomodation of religion case, government is allowed to examine the good faith of the allegedly devout claimant. Here, the claimants are clearly making it up as they go along just to get a loophole. It should take any thoughtful DC bureaucrat about two seconds to deny it.

But there's the problem. Anyone who has ever lived in DC either laughed or cried when they read the phrase "thoughtful DC bureaucrat."

As to who moved where knowing what. Both the kids and the neighbors moved into a residential neighborhood knowing that there were zoning regulations that could be enforced. So what if it's near a university? Zoning laws apply near universities, too.

And there's nothing anti-libertarian about saying that you should have a decent regard for those near you, and that you shouldn't make a pest of yourself. That's just common courtesy.
11.11.2006 4:58pm
Federal Dog:
Yes: Get daddy to buy you a multimillion dollar house while you're in college, then lie your face off so you can party all night and make your neighbors eat your contempt for them and everyone else.


Cool.


What a world.
11.11.2006 5:20pm
donaldk:
What's this jazz about knowing that you are buying near a university, and therefore sharing the blame for your distress?
I lived at 35th and O street in 1965. There was not one day when we noticed any noise, nor anything else to disturb the peace of a fine neighborhood.
11.11.2006 5:33pm
A Georgetown Student:
As friends of most of the Georgetown students owning the house, there are quite a few inaccuracies from posters.

First of all, it was not mentioned in the article that the neighbors had been trying to have the city evict them for quite some time now. The students aren't frat animals - throwing parties five days a week, as one of the posters above has intimated. The house has a pool, and it was used when the weather was warm, but now all parties are kept indoors. I've been to several parties, held on Fridays or Saturdays, and they aren't breaking noise restrictions. Also, because they can walk to campus, the entire house of 9 has only one car -- they're in fact *saving* parking spaces.

Considering the size of the house, the 9 person restriction is ridiculous. I live in an on-campus apartment that houses four people, and I can safely say that their living room and kitchen is probably bigger than my entire apartment.

Sasha Volokh has it right - if we say it's okay to allow religions to have up to 15 unrelated people in a house, why is it not okay to allow 9 unrelated people for other reasons? Either enforce the 6 person restriction across the board, or toss it.

The bottom line is that, yes, these students probably aren't what the neighbors would ideally want, but at the same time, they aren't violating any laws. The neighbors have full recourse to the law if these students get out of control, are puking/urinating on their lawns (which has *never* happened, I would like to point out), or are blasting their music at 4 AM. Simply having neighbors you don't like and whose lifestyles are different from your own is no reason to throw them out.

Good for them for getting a religious exemption; I think it points out the absurdity of such laws in the first place.
11.11.2006 5:34pm
Jay Myers:
logicnazi:

Firstly because I think it illustrates the central problem with special privleges for religion. Though one might try and justify these privleges on the grounds that religion has a positive effect on society (I'm far from convinced) that doesn't really fly because the same privleges go to satanists or whatever groups you disapprove of.

At least Satanists, who tend to get a bad rap, would be an actual religious organization. These spoiled brats are merely pretending to be a religious organization in order to exploit the system. By acting in bad faith to exploit the fact that our society tries to minimize interference with religion as much as possible without resorting to tests of faith to determine sincerity, these hooligans are doing damage not only to the law but the very fabric of society itself. If, because of people attempting to exploit the system, government is forced to burden religious groups and charities the same as the rest of us then there will be fewer homeless shelters, food pantries, and other vitally needed assistance.

Ultimately, a religious group is just a group that believes things and has a common goal.

Like the Nazis, KKK, and Democratic party? If you can't see the difference between those groups and a religious organization, whether Catholic, Protestant, Islamic, Hindu, Pagan, of anything else, then you are blinder than Oedipus.

The idea that some beliefs should get special privleges because they are about god is just stupid.

The founders disagreed. If you don't like living in a country designed by stupid people who stupidly thought ideas deserve special protection precisely because they are about God, then feel free to move to China, Saudi Arabia, or Europe.

Worse getting the government involved in deciding what is and isn't a religion seems to me to violate the spirit of the first ammendment.

I suppose it also violates the spirit of the first amendment to involve the government in deciding what does and doesn't constitute "speech"? "Your honor, I was exercising my right to free speech when I hit my ex-husband in the head with an axe." Yeah, we wouldn't want a government judge deciding the merits of that claim.

As for the actual restriction the students are violating I'm with Sasha here, I think it smells like an anti-college ordinance.

Nonsense. Plenty of places have ordinances about the number of unrelated people who can inhabit a single-family residence and most of them are not near colleges. Most of them also set the number of unrelated people at two or three for a single-family home. Of course, if the students think they are being discriminated against in a manner prohibited by the Fair Housing Act then it would be unconstitutional to apply this kind of zoning restriction to them. City of Edmonds v. Oxford House, Inc. (94-23), 514 U.S. 725 (1995)

Zoning laws are unfortunatly necessery

That is simply not true. They are convenient, especially if one wishes to engage in NIMBY-ism, but they are hardly necessary.

Obviously if 9 related people can live together the concern is not safety. Rather the obvious message is that families are a good and appropriate way to live but living in a commune or with your college buddies is not.

Let's not forget group homes and halfway houses. Preventing the opening of places like those is a major use of this kind of restriction.

I understand that noise and disturbances are real concerns but if that is really the issue it should be possible to enforce via laws on these specific points?

Maybe, but that would require a lot of laws that would be much more difficult to enforce. The reason that the ordinance doesn't apply to families of related people is that it is thought that it would infringe on what is assumed to be an inalienable rights to procreate. Yes, even today some families have more than four kids.

The exception for religious organizations is because members of such groups are perceived (rightly or wrongly) as the ultimate good neighbor who is quiet, well behaved, and keeps up their property. Whatever your feeling about religion and this ordinance, would you honestly expect the same kind of nuisances from a dozen sincere people in holy orders as you would from a typical group of twelve cohabitating people?

Ultimately it is the other resident's comments that the kids are good neighbors that ultimately makes up my mind.

Then prepare to change it because you misread the article. At no point does a neighbor say the kids are good neighbors. It says, "Some neighbors and community representatives who have spoken with the men say that the students feel they have been good neighbors". That is a report that the drunken students feel they have been good neighbors, not that any neighbors feel that the kids have been good neighbors. The reason for the secondhand report is that the kids wouldn't talk with the reporter.

Frankly many people are biased against groups of college kids.

Gee, I wonder why?

They see them as no good kids engaging in a hedonistic lifestyle

And how is that assessment not accurate in this case?

and somehow feel they shouldn't be able to 'get away' with drinking and partying.

A number of them don't "get away" with it. They die. However, drinking and partying is only peripherally at issue here. The main point is that the drunken children want to have more people live in a single family dwelling than zoning ordinances allow and have engaged in misrepresentation in order to do so.

In other words they disapprove of the lifestyle.

Perhaps, but if the kids were engaging in that lifestyle on the other side of town would these same people be trying to stop them? No? Then any real or imagined disapproval must not be the motivation behind the neighbors' complaints. These are townhouses, you know. The things are attached to their neighbors on each side. That kind of close living really magnifies nuisances.

Couldn't their rich daddies' buy them a bar or something?

As a result people will often not give college kids the same leeway they would give a family who produced the same amounts of noise.

I'm sure that a family with the same amount of noisy, drunken partying would be receiving the same amount of complaints.

Maybe it really would be better to treat everyone equally and not show favoritism, but that doesn't mean that there is anything nefarious behind the creation of the ordinance or the neighbors' disenchantment with the students.
11.11.2006 5:39pm
Jack S. (mail) (www):

In Europe they have code books full of community guidelines and they would rather your grannie die of heat exhaustion than allow one of those heinous nasty American air conditioners into the neighborhood.


Really? Have you seen these codes? And how does this differ from mandatory participation homeowners associations in the US?
11.11.2006 5:55pm
liberty (mail) (www):
"Really? Have you seen these codes? And how does this differ from mandatory participation homeowners associations in the US?"

Yes, my grannie lives in a building like this. The government also applies guidelines to the purchase and lease of homes (many homes cannot be purchased but only leased for some number of years after which you must give it back - no inheritance) because they are subsidized. There are reams and reams of code, including zoning, leasing guidelines, home protection guidelines, ordinances on noise, visuals (flags, decoration, paint), appliances such as AC or anything that requires electricity, handicap guidelines and much more.

The difference is that many of these are government enforced, rather than community-determined. That was my problem with the zoning laws in the first place in this post. "Mandatory participation" homeowner associations are only mandatory if you want to live there. Granted the NYC co-ops are easily on par with many of the London codes, but in NY you don't have to join one of these co-ops. In the UK (and much of the rest of Europe) these things are federal law.
11.11.2006 6:06pm
Public_Defender (mail):

The bottom line is that, yes, these students probably aren't what the neighbors would ideally want, but at the same time, they aren't violating any laws.


Except, of course, for the law governing the number of people in the same house, of course. As to moving the parties inside for the winter, that would be a nice solution except for a little thing called "spring."



Statement: Zoning laws are unfortunatly necessery

Response: That is simply not true. They are convenient, especially if one wishes to engage in NIMBY-ism, but they are hardly necessary.


Most people want to live with zoning laws, otherwise they wouldn't be on the books. Those who don't need to move outside the city.

Developers building new neighborhoods generally put deed restrictions that are far, far more restrictive than most zoning. But those kind of private restrictive covenents are not feasible in established neighborhoods.

The US has a huge variety of zoned, unzoned, and restrictive covenent neighborhoods. You probably have to move out of a city for an unzoned area, but they do exist. And the degree of zoning control varies widely from place to place. If you don't like the zoning in a neighborhood, don't move there.
11.11.2006 6:13pm
John Burgess (mail) (www):
A Georgetown Student: I guess you're not getting invited to the wilder parties. Having washed the vomit off a front terrace myself, I can factually dispute your ignorance of the same. Just because you seem to behave yourself, you can't assume all your fellow party-goers do.

Parking by the residents of the house isn't the issue. They have to have residential parking permits. It the parking by the scores of guests that presents problems. You know the ones... the one parked in front of the hydrants, on the corners obstructing the view, blocking sidewalk cuts, in the alleyways.

Enforcement of noise ordinances might do the trick, but that's pretty low on the DC police list of priorities these days, what with a "Crime Emergency" in effect. Constant reminders to keep the noise down--seasoned with a handful of fines now and then--might do the trick, though. Or maybe enforcement of "nuisance" provisions that are used to shut down crack houses.

The youth or student status of the residents aren't the issue, nor the manner in which they acquired residency--all money was new at some point, after all, and there's a long American tradition of flaunting it if you've got it.

It's obnoxious behavior, the noise that keeps one from sleeping, and the drunkenness that requires the neighbors to clean up other people's physiological messes that alienate the people living in the immediate neighborhood. Being a smart-ass in wiggling through legal loopholes isn't a particularly endearing charm, either.

One doesn't have to be a card-carrying socialist to understand that neighborhoods are communities. Socialized behavior is expected, not the "whatever I want is good enough for you" attitude being expressed here.
11.11.2006 6:18pm
dick thompson (mail):
And yet in Cambridge, Ma when I lived in the Boston area a guy bought a 3-family house shortly after he became a citizen. He had 5 kids. He combined 2 of the apartments for a family home and rented out the other apartment to a Cambridge city judge. The judge and her daughter sued the guy because he was removing an apartment from the rent rolls. If he went back to the 3-family home he would not have enough bedrooms to meet the zoning laws of Cambridge for his family. If he renovated the apartment, then he was breaking the laws because he was changing the zoning of the house. He ended up having to change it back to 3-family and rent elsewhere to house his family. The judge and her daughter took 2 of the apartments and as of the middle 1990's were still there at low rents. The daughter was a lawyer.

When you compare the situation in Georgetown with what the city of Cambridge did to this poor guy who was just trying to house his family, which do you think deserves more support - a spoiled kid who is gaming the system or a man who is trying to house his family. And you still think this is funny?
11.11.2006 6:20pm
LotharoftheHillPeople:
I have an idea: Let's all tell the IRS that we had no income this year. It'll be great -- we'll all get to keep all our money, and that will show how dumb the tax system is!!! Are you with me? I promise, it will be very cool.
11.11.2006 6:25pm
liberty (mail) (www):
I don't think I've ever seen a post get people so hot &bothered (as Tucker Carlson would say). And all that started it was a simple "Check this out, this is cool."
11.11.2006 6:30pm
BT:
The regular non-college age people who bought the townhomes in the first place probably never dreamed that a group of wacked out college kids could ever afford to live next door, despite being in proximity to Georgetown. What are the chances of a college kid or his parents plunking down 2.5 mil for a townhome? Pretty slim I would say. Justice would be served if those same kids packed up and moved next door to logic nazi and pulled the same stunts. Then we will find out how "awesome" it is to logic nazi. Actually logic nazi sounds like he/she comes from a similar type family to Mr. O'Neil.
11.11.2006 6:36pm
Harry Eagar (mail):
Joe, count me among those who detect no social advantages from religions and an advocate fair treatment (that is, similar treatment) for all. Not for libertarian reasons.

The anecdote about the Cambridge immigrant is telling. As is Bruce's.

My question was loaded. I live in a county where the cheapest three-bedroom house sells for around $600,000. And although we are not congested like Georgetown, we also have a six-person housing limit. This is not aimed at college students, as we have no colleges.

So what happens: large families, many of them recent immigrants, crowd into small houses. Some rebuild houses into what effectively become tenements (well-kept tenements). As long as everybody is more or less well-behaved, government looks the other way. Otherwise, people move onto the beaches. Which some do anyway.

If you're ever in Manhattan, please visit the East Side Tenement Museum. There's a reason for zoning ordinances. But they are awfully difficult to draw unless the community is willing to live with them in a social way. Every one I've ever encountered was easily vulnerable to strict construction chiselers.
11.11.2006 6:43pm
Bonnie Kate (mail):
A few years back, my condo project had a unit rented out to a few players on the basketball team. After repeated confrontation regarding noise at all hours of night, someone got a hold of the President of the University at his home. He promptly spoke to the Coach and within weeks, the kids relocated.

The University has the ability to dimiss a student if there are repeated noise violations. The City will fine students and after repeated complaints, will follow up with landlords.

Individuals when they're drinking have no clue how far sound travels. (We don't use air conditioning for our 10 weeks of summer. A car door slamming, a girl yacking away on her cell phone simultaneously yelling to her friend to hurry is relatively innocuous but not at 3:52 am.)

Next year, the university up the hill is going to strictly enforce a "dry campus" policy. We are apt to see more kids caravanning down the hill to drink with friends living off-campus. Personally, I'd like to see alcohol consumption for those under 21 allowed on campus. (I'm not sure you could craft a law to allow this. Perhaps it can be worked into some sort or religous rite.)
11.11.2006 7:37pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
dick thompson: That Cambridge example sounds outrageous to me. Fortunately, I don't have to choose. Both the Cambridge guy and the students deserve my support. Both are being oppressed by zoning.

Lothar: My view that this is cool is derivative of my view that this zoning scheme is illegitimate. Tax collection, on the other hand, I view as, in principle, legitimate. That's why zoning loopholers are cool and tax evaders aren't.

liberty: Hard to tell what posts are the comment mills. I also hit the jackpot with my recent post defending suicide.
11.11.2006 7:51pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
For "oppressed" above, of course insert "in danger of being oppressed." The Cambridge example is admittedly more outrageous because he wasn't harming anyone, while these guys (if you believe some reports) are at least doing some harm, though I think that harm should be remedied by more legitimate policy instruments.
11.11.2006 8:26pm
dsn:
Just a funny thought ... I wonder what the reaction of most people posting would be if the government imposed similar restrictions to, say, protect an endangered species? Or would that be an evil regulatory taking?
11.11.2006 8:40pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
For instance, if there were some horned toad that would be threatened by 15 unrelated people living in a house except if they're a religious group?
11.11.2006 9:10pm
liberty (mail) (www):
LOL... now that was funny!
11.11.2006 9:13pm
Public_Defender (mail):

Both are being oppressed by zoning.

How are they being "oppressed by zoning"? They chose to buy in a neighborhood they knew had zoning (or they stupidly bought without checking). Zoning was part of the package of property rights they bought (and part of the property rights their neighbors bought). If they didn't like the zoning laws, they were free to buy elsewhere.

Most people who buy homes want to buy homes in zoned areas. Why do you want to take that choice away?
11.11.2006 10:25pm
Doug Baserman:
Having read through these posts, it amazes me how some people can be so obsessed with the actions of others. There is absolutely no reason this needs to be a story, there are far more important events in the world. Good for these kids to upset their obviously fuddy-duddy neighbors. In my opinion they have done nothing wrong, and also have done nothing to deserve this sort of attention. For those of you who condemn them as spoiled rich white kids, please move on and let these kids resume their lives as normal college students.
11.11.2006 10:40pm
Ragerz (mail):
My initial reaction to this was that what these students who were claiming this religious exemption were "uncool" and that this student with his $2.4 million house, admittedly poor study habits (he freely admits that "he doesn't really read much" was a good argument both against legacy preferences and low-inheritance taxes.

However, I am persuaded that the ordinance in question is not a good one. I don't think that government discriminating against people who are unrelated or unreligious is legitimate. Sasha has my vote on this one. The individuals invoking these principles may not be the most savory, but the principles nonetheless are right.
11.11.2006 11:05pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
Public Defender: That you bought property with notice of restrictions is not a complete answer. Lots of rights can be burdened with fair notice. The fact that there was fair notice is only proof that there was fair notice.

But fair notice is not the only conceivable problem with restrictions on rights! If a country represses free speech, the repression can be done with lots of prior notice, and yet the residents of the country have a valid claim that the law is invalid -- moreover, even recent immigrants to the country have a valid claim that the law is invalid.

This is because laws can be inherently wrong for other reasons that have nothing to do with notice; if so, they're just invalid, and therefore they don't justly bind anyone, even those who came to the area knowing about the law. And if they're unjust in that way, then the fact that some people bought property expecting that the law would bind others also doesn't carry water.

Bottom line: It's not enough to say a government restriction is part of the package of rights. Before saying that, you have to do an analysis of whether the government could rightfully take away that stick of the bundle in the first place.
11.11.2006 11:34pm
jgshapiro (mail):
How is the Apostles of O'Neill any different than the Church of Scientology?

As far as I can see, there is not much difference. They are both scams. The first exists to exploit exemptions from zoning restrictions for religious organizations and the second exists to exploit exemptions from tax laws for religious organizations.

I suppose you could say that one is really a fraternity and the other is really a Ponzi scheme, but I digress. If you create an exemption from a set of rules without a good definition of the exemption, sooner or later, the exemption will swallow the rules.
11.12.2006 12:50am
Public_Defender (mail):

Bottom line: It's not enough to say a government restriction is part of the package of rights. Before saying that, you have to do an analysis of whether the government could rightfully take away that stick of the bundle in the first place.

I bet if you checked most condo association agreements that they would contain similar restrictions on numbers of residents. They proabably do not include a similar exception for religion, but that's a different question. (I think it's fair to argue that the religious exception should be lifted.)

In the real world, zoning restrictions tend to be far less restrictive than the privately-enforced deed restrictions in newer developments and condos. People generally want to live in neighborhoods where certain behavior and practices are banned.

What is invalid about putting a restriction on the number of unrelated people living together? I wouldn't want the house next door to mine to house nine college students. And my neighbors wouldn't want me to sell my house to house a group of nine college students. Most people who buy a house in a residential neighborhood support such restrictions.

People who don't like the restrictions in any given neighborhood don't have to buy property there. Why do you want to limit people's choice when it comes to property rights?

On the restriction in ths case (number of unrelated people living in the same house), fair notice seems perfectly fair.
11.12.2006 7:27am
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
Public Defender: You say: "Why do you want to limit people's choice when it comes to property rights?" "[L]imit[ing] people's choice" is a nice rhetorical turn, but it doesn't support the restriction here. Lots of restrictions on rights help some people and hurt others. Many people might benefit from such a restriction and would pay good money to live in a neighborhood that's so limited. Other people are harmed by such a restriction which, by its obvious operation, prevents some people from doing what they want to do.

Allowing such restrictions doesn't unambiguously expand people's choice: It expands some people's choices while limiting others'; or, more precisely, it expands some people's choices by limiting others'. So the "pro-choice" argument is ambiguous.

People who want such a restriction have various means at their disposal. Most obviously, they can burden the properties with covenants. Or they can have a single organization own all the properties and rent it to all the residents. Now that would effectively limit the bundle of rights involved, and no one would be entitled to complain.

But what makes, say, restrictions through covenants or unified ownership different is that you need unanimous consent -- which was absent here. This is the same as the standard libertarian critique of democracy: The problem isn't the content of the restriction, but the fact that it was imposed on an unwilling minority. The "pro-choice" rhetoric you're using refers to the "choice" of the majority to impose a (possibly beneficial overall) scheme on their unwilling neighbors, which is why you say "Most people who buy . . . support such restrictions."
11.12.2006 9:09am
Public_Defender (mail):

Most obviously, they can burden the properties with covenants. Or they can have a single organization own all the properties and rent it to all the residents. Now that would effectively limit the bundle of rights involved, and no one would be entitled to complain.

But what makes, say, restrictions through covenants or unified ownership different is that you need unanimous consent -- which was absent here.


Then there would never be zoning in established residential neighborhoods, a result that the vast majority of homeowners would oppose. Would you at least concede that all but a few people who buy single-family homes in residential neighborhoods want the area to stay zoned?

Zoning does limit what you can do with your property, but when done correctly, it increases the value of the regulated properly (a fact that would kill federal takings claims). If it's done poorly, residents can throw the bums out and pass new zoning laws.

The ability to throw the bums out also makes zoning superior to deed restrictions. It's nearly impossible to change many deed restrictions, even if they don't make sense 50 years after they were written. Communities can change zoning laws with the needs of the community.


The "pro-choice" rhetoric you're using refers to the "choice" of the majority to impose a (possibly beneficial overall) scheme on their unwilling neighbors, which is why you say "Most people who buy . . . support such restrictions."

That's called democracy. I have some sympathy for people who have zoning rules changed after they buy property. I'm sure there are some dumb zoning rules that should be changed, and even some that are confiscatory. But that's a different question than a facial assault on zoning.

Further, the zoning laws weren't "imposed" on me or on anyone who has purchased property here over the past few decades. I chose to buy my house partly because of zoning. Why do you want to deprive me of the benefit of my bargain? Why do you want to deprive my neighbors of the benefit of their bargain? Or the Georgetown neighbors the benefit of their bargain?

The bottom line is, if you don't like the zoning on a house, don't buy it. Likewise, if you don't like a deed restriction on a house, don't buy it.
11.12.2006 11:21am
Public_Defender (mail):
Sorry for the double post, but if you agree with the concept of regulatory takings, do you think that the government should compensate existing homeowners if property values decrease because the government changes zoning laws? Even if the "change" in zoning laws is the elimination of zoning laws?
11.12.2006 11:53am
Jay Myers:
Public_Defender (mail):

Statement: Zoning laws are unfortunatly necessery

Response: That is simply not true. They are convenient, especially if one wishes to engage in NIMBY-ism, but they are hardly necessary.

Most people want to live with zoning laws, otherwise they wouldn't be on the books. Those who don't need to move outside the city.

Yes? I agree that very nearly everyone wants zoning restrictions. Even the students in this story would want zoning laws to prevent one of their neighbors turning their property into a toxic waste dump. But how does this "want" and the bare fact of zoning laws existing make them a necessity rather than a convenience? Necessity implies an absolute inability to do without. I may want ice cream for dessert but that hardly makes it necessary that I have ice cream for dessert. In fact, if I am diabetic then it may be necessary that I not have ice cream for dessert. My point stands.
11.12.2006 12:22pm
byomtov (mail):
That you bought property with notice of restrictions is not a complete answer. Lots of rights can be burdened with fair notice. The fact that there was fair notice is only proof that there was fair notice.

But fair notice is not the only conceivable problem with restrictions on rights! If a country represses free speech, the repression can be done with lots of prior notice, and yet the residents of the country have a valid claim that the law is invalid.


Why? Undesirable, unreasonable, undemocratic, foolish, etc. But invalid?

because laws can be inherently wrong for other reasons that have nothing to do with notice; if so, they're just invalid, and therefore they don't justly bind anyone, even those who came to the area knowing about the law. And if they're unjust in that way, then the fact that some people bought property expecting that the law would bind others also doesn't carry water.

Lots of "ifs" in that paragraphs, and nothing about what makes a law so unjust as to be invalid. By what stretch can you put zoning laws into the category of laws so awful that they are automatically invalid?

I suppose next you're going to claim that these "students" are the heirs of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., using civil disobedience to point out the terrible, terrible injustice of not being allowed to vomit on their neighbors' property.
11.12.2006 12:29pm
Public_Defender (mail):

But how does this "want" and the bare fact of zoning laws existing make them a necessity rather than a convenience? Necessity implies an absolute inability to do without.

You're right. It's just a "want" that my neighbors not sell their houses to a toxic waste dump company. But it's a "want" of pretty much every homeowner. And it's a want that makes property more valuable when correctly enforced.

The "necessity" for laws is that private means won't work. Once more than a few people own property in an area, it's virtually impossible to add restrictive covenents.

Getting rid of zoning laws would deprive the vast majority of homeowners of the benefit of their bargain. The elimonation of residential zoning would make almost everyone worse off to benefit a few cranks and bad neighbors who could always chose to buy property in an unzoned part of the country.

Libertarianism has its strenghth showing how markets can make everyone better off. But every now and then, government can do a better job. Zoning is one of those times.

Why should government radically alter existing property rights when that change would make almost everyone worse off?
11.12.2006 12:48pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
byomtov: You're reading too much into my statement of invalidity. Sure, laws can be more or less foolish, violate rights to a greater or lesser extent, etc. Zoning is not Stalin. All I meant was that these zoning laws do unjustifiably violate rights, so that we shouldn't have them. Perhaps they're a very small violation in the scheme of things. But I'm not speaking to the magnitude of the violation.

Of course not all zoning laws violate rights. For instance, a zoning law may happen to prevent activities which are rights violations themselves, for instance carrying on a noxious enterprise. Perhaps it's to some extent duplicative of nuisance law; but even if there happened to be no nuisance law on point, that zoning law could arguably be O.K.

But, say, a rule that you not paint your house pink restricts your rights while protecting nothing except other people's aesthetic sense and property values -- not good enough. Rights can only be violated to protect other rights; which would make the no-pink-house rule an unjustified rights violation, and therefore invalid.

Public Defender: Incidentally, the "benefit of the bargain" theory doesn't get you where you want to go. Again, suppose a country suppressed free speech in a way that we could all agree was wrong. And suppose that after that, many people immigrate to that country. Some immigrate because they liked the free speech suppressions; others immigrate for miscellaneous reasons.

In my view, the free speech restrictions are invalid. Not just foolish -- perhaps they're not foolish at all, but really make most people better off, so this is a gain in efficiency -- but invalid because they violate rights without protecting rights in return. Now some of those immigrants gave up a lot to immigrate to this country in reliance on the speech restrictions. What about the benefit of their bargain? Regardless, we should grieve for them, and then proceed to ignore their sadness.
11.12.2006 1:04pm
Public_Defender (mail):

Of course not all zoning laws violate rights. For instance, a zoning law may happen to prevent activities which are rights violations themselves, for instance carrying on a noxious enterprise. Perhaps it's to some extent duplicative of nuisance law; but even if there happened to be no nuisance law on point, that zoning law could arguably be O.K.

Most homeowners would define a house with nine college students who like to party as a "noxious enterprise."

Now some of those immigrants gave up a lot to immigrate to this country in reliance on the speech restrictions. What about the benefit of their bargain?

What does this have to do with someone who bought a house for nine college students knowing that nine unrelated people weren't allowed to live together? It would seem that the Georgetown rule was designed to stop exactly this kind of situation.

And if someone wants to move to an area where the government regulates the color of paint on a house, fine with me. My city has neighborhoods like that, and I chose not to buy a house there. The residents who chose to buy a house there are generally happy with their tight restrictions. If they want fewer restrictions, they can buy property in my neighborhood. I'm happy with my moderate restrictions. If people don't like the moderate restrictions in my neighborhood, they can buy elsewhere.

Done right, zoning enhances freedom of choice.

Again, given that the vast majority of homeowners prefer zoning, why should government radically alter existing property rights when that change would make almost everyone worse off?
11.12.2006 1:14pm
Jay Myers:
Sasha Volokh:

Lots of restrictions on rights help some people and hurt others. Many people might benefit from such a restriction and would pay good money to live in a neighborhood that's so limited. Other people are harmed by such a restriction which, by its obvious operation, prevents some people from doing what they want to do.

Allowing such restrictions doesn't unambiguously expand people's choice: It expands some people's choices while limiting others'; or, more precisely, it expands some people's choices by limiting others'. So the "pro-choice" argument is ambiguous.

The same can be said of laws which prohibit raping, killing, and stealing. Some people are having their choices restricted but most of us have our choices enhanced by not being raped, killed, or robbed quite so often as we would be without the laws.

People who want such a restriction have various means at their disposal. Most obviously, they can burden the properties with covenants. Or they can have a single organization own all the properties and rent it to all the residents. Now that would effectively limit the bundle of rights involved, and no one would be entitled to complain.

That sounds like a government to me. I supposedly own my home but every year the government increases the rent I have to pay them to stay here. If I don't pay, they'll rent it to someone else. They can even decide to rent it to someone else just on the basis of them paying more rent than I do.

But what makes, say, restrictions through covenants or unified ownership different is that you need unanimous consent -- which was absent here. This is the same as the standard libertarian critique of democracy: The problem isn't the content of the restriction, but the fact that it was imposed on an unwilling minority.

By becoming and remaining a member of a polity one makes a social contract in which one consents to be bound by decisions made by the members as a whole or by any body composed of duly chosen representatives. To say that the majority is unfairly imposing its will on you is to be Georgia claiming that while it did ratify the Constitution, which included a supremacy clause, the state still retained the right to determine which federal laws would apply within Georgia's borders. Being able to pick and choose which laws will and will not apply to you is not only irrational, but unworkable as a system.

There is a concept that could be used to allow for individuals who wish to opt out of government restrictions on grounds that the majority is imposing on them things they have not specifically consented to. The outlaw. By not being a part of the social contract which includes blanket consent, the individual is placed outside the protections afforded by that social contract.

The "pro-choice" rhetoric you're using refers to the "choice" of the majority to impose a (possibly beneficial overall) scheme on their unwilling neighbors, which is why you say "Most people who buy . . . support such restrictions."

The people of Georgetown are a part of a political body and as such have elected individuals to represent them. Those individuals have decided to make some certain zoning laws and the people of Georgetown are required to abide by them until such time as they are changed or a waiver is granted. If individual property owners have a problem with a restriction then they can make an appeal for a variance, attempt to have the ordinance changed, or quit that political body and move to one somewhere else that doesn't have the offending regulation. In this case, all daddy has to do is buy a second house for the excess residents.
11.12.2006 1:15pm
liberty (mail) (www):
"The same can be said of laws which prohibit raping, killing, and stealing."

No, because someone's right are being violated by the rapist, murderer and theif. Once again you guys are missing the whole point about rights and the role of government and focusing only on whether a law makes a mjaority happy or not.
11.12.2006 1:26pm
Jay Myers:
Public_Defender:

You're right. It's just a "want" that my neighbors not sell their houses to a toxic waste dump company. But it's a "want" of pretty much every homeowner. And it's a want that makes property more valuable when correctly enforced.

I'm not disputing the desirability or success of zoning laws. I'm just saying that people can, and have, successfully lived without them.

The "necessity" for laws is that private means won't work.

No, the necessity of a law is that its ends must be achieved in order for a government to fulfill the ends of having a government. Anything else is optional. Do men constitute governments among themselves for the purpose of controling what others may do on their real property? Clearly not. Upon having governments they do seek to do so but if a group of people were stranded on a desert isle they wouldn't consider zoning laws a vital reason to structure a government.
11.12.2006 1:31pm
Jay Myers:
liberty:

No, because someone's right are being violated by the rapist, murderer and theif. Once again you guys are missing the whole point about rights and the role of government and focusing only on whether a law makes a mjaority happy or not.

And is a tenement owner's right being violated when the government tells him that he can't rent a townhouse out to 50 residents? Yes, but there is a tension between his rights and the public safety interests of the community and in that competition his property rights come in second. The story mentioned that there has already been one fatal fire involving a college student in the recent past. "Concerns about safety in off-campus homes increased after a 2004 fire killed a Georgetown student and news reports revealed that many houses were unsafe and had landlords without the required basic business license." Sounds like a legitimate safety concern to me. One common way such concerns are addressed are with maximum occupancy rules. And since the concern seems specific to landlords renting to the transient student population rather than settled families or nuneries... But what is the impact going to be if these shady landlords can begin renting to 15 person "religious organizations" formed by college students? Then we're back at the situation that has already cost one person their life. Oh, but let's all cheer sticking it to the "bluenoses". Being able to have kewl parties is ever so much more important than a few lives here or there.

The question is, are property rights being trampled by having an exeption for religious organizations? I have already responded why there would be a legitimate perception that a group of religious adherents living austere lives of contemplation and good works would not pose the same kind or degree of risks that a more typical collection of unrelated cohabitants would.
11.12.2006 1:53pm
liberty (mail) (www):
Jay,

You can make laws specific to safety. There is no inherant reason why a non-religious non-related high-occupancy house is more dangerous than a related or religious occupancy.

What of orphanages? Half-way houses (which someone above seemed to be happy to zone out but which are the only way for recovering addicts to renew their role as good citizens)? Women's shelters for domestic violence victims? Do these all get exemptions just so you can keep sticking it to the students? What if it were a "legitimate" dorm? Then all of a suddent its ok again.

Its just absurd to argue that you can trample property rights because you think that statistically there is a great safety concern when residents are not related and don't all believe in the same God.
11.12.2006 2:01pm
A Georgetown Student:
Liberty gets at the central point of the argument.

Everyone here seems to be harping on the point that the residency restrictions limit the number of unrelated people to six and that the Georgetown students should have known it before they moved in, and therefore they have no recourse.

As Sasha points out, there is *also* a clause that they could have known saying that religious groups get an exemption to the 6 person limit. Knowing that, it's well within their right to declare themselves a religious group. As Liberty says, if there's a safety concern, it's going to be a safety concern whether or not the group believes in god or not.


Another point, however, seems to revolve around the fact of whether the students are allowed to live there period. Most residents seem to care more about the fact that the students throw parties from time to time more so than there are 9 people living in a house that could probably comfortably fit 20 - so whether it's six or nine, there would still be a problem.

Posters still seem to forget though, that as we talk about what the students should have known when moving in (i.e. the zoning restrictions), people should also know what they should expect in terms of social life in choosing to move in two blocks away from a university that has been there for over two hundred years. And, again, these kids aren't violating noise restrictions either, which neighbors have a fully legal recourse to stopping. It seems they just disagree with the fact that kids are partying at all.
11.12.2006 3:27pm
Public_Defender (mail):

Liberty gets at the central point of the argument.

Yep, and people have the liberty to choose which neighborhood to buy property in. Zoning is one way neighborhoods on cities compete. There are probably hundreds of different zoning schemes in the DC Metro area. People have the "liberty" to choose which one they want.

Removing zoning authority takes away the liberty of property buyers to choose a zoning scheme of their choice.


. . . people should also know what they should expect in terms of social life in choosing to move in two blocks away from a university that has been there for over two hundred years.

I think they did know what to expect. That's probably one of the reasons they put the zoning restrictions on. To keep students from turning the residences into pseudo-frat houses.
11.12.2006 3:36pm
A Georgetown Student:

Zoning is one way neighborhoods on cities compete. There are probably hundreds of different zoning schemes in the DC Metro area. People have the "liberty" to choose which one they want.

And they decided to include a exception for religious groups. Hence the Apostles of Brian O'Neill.
11.12.2006 3:59pm
Federal Dog:
"And they decided to include a exception for religious groups. Hence the Apostles of Brian O'Neill."


That is not a religious group, and saying that it is is fraud. That is why people condemn the kids involved: Some people here do not support fraud by college kids.
11.12.2006 4:42pm
Public_Defender (mail):

And they decided to include a exception for religious groups. Hence the Apostles of Brian O'Neill.

And if you believe that they are a religious group, I have an unzoned bridge in New York to sell you, real cheap.
11.12.2006 4:46pm
Byomtov (mail):
people should also know what they should expect in terms of social life in choosing to move in two blocks away from a university that has been there for over two hundred years.

Gee. I live near a university that's been there even longer than that, and have no such problems.
11.12.2006 4:48pm
A Georgetown Student:
I think the primary point by Sasha, the reason for it being on the site, is that the religious exemption rule is unfair, and furthermore, that the zoning restriction itself is unfair.

Certainly, you agree that certain zoning restrictions are unfair. For example, a restriction saying that only white people can buy or rent property in an area would be unfair, even if there was an exception saying that religious groups could allow non-whites to buy/rent.

A rule forbidding six unrelated people from living together, while allowing six related people to, is simply an unfair, suspect and hypocritical rule -- especially with an exemption for religious groups.

There is no legal definition for religious groups in DC law. So I say congrats to them for it. Points out the hypocrisy of the law, and if they can legally get around out, good for them.
11.12.2006 5:07pm
Federal Dog:
"Certainly, you agree that certain zoning restrictions are unfair."


Contest them then through principled argument and action, not by resorting to two-bit fraud.
11.12.2006 5:34pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
My first thought upon reading the defense of the zoning scheme was, "If they're worried about raucous parties, why not enforce noise ordinances when they hold raucous parties?"

As far as I can gather from the above discussion thread, the counterargument is, essentially, "It's too hard to punish people who actually bother their neighbors, so instead we'll put arbitrary restrictions on people who don't."
11.12.2006 5:57pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
Public Defender: This doesn't get at your main point, but I just thought I'd mention: When "A Georgetown Student" said "Liberty gets at the point of the argument," he was referring to the commenter whose name is "liberty," who had posted previously.

I think you took him as referring to the concept of liberty generally -- something more like "The point of the argument is all about liberty" -- so you went on a riff on the topic of liberty.

Now the commenter named "liberty" is obviously connected to the concept of liberty, but "A Georgetown Student"'s point was more specific than that, and was developed in his next couple of paragraphs. Not that this destroys your point or anything, but I'm just saying.
11.12.2006 6:30pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
Incidentally, all the talk about being part of a polity, social contract, agreeing to be bound, the (vast) majority of people being better off, etc., gets at the central issue.

Under the "standard" model of democratic politics, majorities get to decide policy. Unless they're being particularly oppressive, they're entitled to enact their views into policy, even if their policies are, in the aggregate, wealth-reducing.

Zoning is one example where the majority policy may even sometimes enact wealth-enhancing policies, where they restrict the rights of a minority; the minority loses a little, but the majority gains a lot. In a hypothetical veil-of-ignorance or social contract scenario, the minority would have happily sold their rights to nonconforming property uses to the majority.

Libertarianism, as I understand it, rejects both of these. Majorities have no inherent right to enact anything into policy. Even when their policy increases wealth. Even when their policy increases wealth vastly. There's no social contract. How many people are better off makes no difference. One guy can still veto the outcome. A majority is no better than a bunch of random guys -- they have no right to do what the random guys have no right to do.

Now, how do you distinguish good government policy, like spending money on police, having laws against murder and rape, or "good zoning," i.e., preventing loud parties at night? Because when you're protecting rights, then violating rights to do so can be O.K. in principle.

But note that, here too, majority/minority issues are irrelevant. So in both cases, the social contract is irrelevant. When no rights are being protected, no rights can be violated, regardless of how many people want it and how many people would benefit and to what extent. When rights are being protected, then some rights can be violated; and while as a practical matter we probably want to set up a democratic government to implement this, the fact of democratic consent doesn't make the rights violation moral or immoral.
11.12.2006 6:43pm
Byomtov (mail):
Libertarianism, as I understand it, rejects both of these.

But then what process do libertarians propose as a way of defining rights, settling disputes over whether certain activities in fact violate others' rights, and generally dealing with conflicting rights, etc.?

To imagine that these things are obvious and universally agreed on is clearly quite foolish, so without some such process libertarianism is pretty empty. And if some rule-making process is in place, does the libertarian consider himself bound by its results?
11.12.2006 7:31pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
Byomtov: I'm glad you asked! So far, all I've described is how we should, in our hearts, think about what's right and wrong. It doesn't explain how we implement that in a society.

In my view, the ideal libertarian world would be a dictatorship by an Ideal Libertarian, i.e., me. I would let everyone do what they had a right to do, forbid people from doing what they didn't have a right to do, and in situations where it was legitimate to violate some rights to some extent in order to protect some other rights to a greater extent, I would violate the first set of rights to exactly the right extent.

But because dictatorship by an Ideal Libertarian is infeasible, I believe some form of constitutionally limited democracy is the best feasible system. I won't try and justify that in this post.

Now once you set up a democracy, even with a constitution, it will immediately start coming up with results that are different than what I, as a benevolent czar, would have done. So this ideal feasible government does engage in unjustifiable rights violations, and therefore to a certain extent is immoral.

No surprise there: I expect that all feasible systems will be immoral to some degree (only my benevolent despotism is ideal, by definition), and I only chose a particular form of constitutional democracy because I expected that that form would be less immoral than any other feasible system.

The ideal feasible system will have some unjustifiable zoning ordinances, some unjustifiable abridgments of freedom of speech, some unjustifiable wars, etc. Sure, my ideal feasible system has an ideal constitution, but even then, the democracy controls who's appointed to interpret the constitution, whether the constitution gets amended, etc. And I have no more power to change that than anyone else.

Now, to your question: What kind of allegiance does that demand from me? Violent revolution is generally unjustifiable for good Burkean reasons: The people who revolt generally can't control what the successor government looks like; in a time of turmoil, the worst get on top; and so for a revolution to be justified, the status quo has to be truly awful, or there has to be some reason to believe your revolution can be kept strictly within bounds. In my ideal feasible system, by definition (because it's ideal, of all feasible systems), revolution is unjustified; and revolution is also unjustified in most pretty-much-O.K. systems.

What about mere civil disobedience? When I disobey an unjust law that violates my rights, it has a positive effect on total rights. But it also has a negative effect to the extent that (1) it weakens the culture of obedience and (2) the culture of obedience is rights-protective overall. If you can break down (1) [i.e., my action has no effect on the broader culture] or (2) [i.e., the culture of obedience is harmful to rights], then civil disobedience becomes good because it has no negative effect.

Generally, I think (1) is pretty small, but I can't rule out that it's nonzero. Generally, I also think (2) is a wash. On the one hand, obeying authority is good because that's somewhat of a check on bad people -- not everyone can tell the difference because justified and unjustified disobedience, so if they follow your example, they may draw the wrong lesson. On the other hand, obeying authority is bad because it can help to entrench unjust practices -- see the civil rights movement.

In doing this cost-benefit analysis, of course it makes a difference whether the world at large can tell the difference between your disobedience and other people's bad disobedience, which in part depends on how convincing a story you can tell about the injustice you're combating -- most people didn't confuse civil rights civil disobedience with the disobedience of thieves and murderers, just as they don't confuse people who take medical marijuana with thieves and murderers.

So to answer your question -- should I, as a libertarian, consider myself bound by the results of democracy when I personally believe those results to be immoral? That depends on the above cost-benefit analysis of civil disobedience. My disobedience will help me avoid personal oppression. But it may also weaken the culture of obedience, and that could be either a plus or a minus.

Ultimately, I tend to draw the line more in favor of civil disobedience than many people do. First, because I think my action has relatively little effect on others. Second, because to the extent I do affect others, I think the culture of obedience isn't all it's cracked up to be, and people should think more critically about which laws they want to follow. This is related to, third, my belief that libertarians can tell an intuitively plausible story about the illegitimacy of victimless crimes.
11.12.2006 8:03pm
Byomtov (mail):
I'm glad you asked!

Glad to help.

I believe some form of constitutionally limited democracy is the best feasible system. I won't try and justify that in this post.

No need to justify it. I agree. But I will say I see nothing inherent in libertarianism that leads to this conclusion. So I still think it lacking.

should I, as a libertarian, consider myself bound by the results of democracy when I personally believe those results to be immoral? That depends on the above cost-benefit analysis of civil disobedience...

most people didn't confuse civil rights civil disobedience with the disobedience of thieves and murderers,

I think you are making an error here. Those who engage in civil disobedience do not claim they are not bound by a particular law, nor do they seek, like common criminals, to violate the law and escape punishment. Quite the opposite. Those who engage in it, at least in the case of civil rights, accept that they are bound, in that they break the law for the express purpose of showing, when punished, that the law was unjust.

The message is not, "I refuse to be bound by a law that denies me the right to eat at this lunch counter." It is "Look at the injustice of this law, which jails me for trying to eat here. Anyone of good conscience must seek its repeal," or alternatively, "I find this law so unjust that I am willing to be jailed rather than obey it."

These are not the sentiments of those who do not consider themselves bound by law.
11.12.2006 8:33pm
liberty (mail) (www):
Sasha @ 8:03pm

Nice post!

"In my view, the ideal libertarian world would be a dictatorship by an Ideal Libertarian, i.e., me."

Ha!! I have seen a few anarcho-capitalists who appeared to me to be to be Lenins in disguise, but I've never before heard a libertarian expressly favor dictatorship.

I have to disagree, if we are to be serious about it. A strong constitution founded on principles of rights-protection only, held up by committee (democratic government, balance of power, courts etc) is better than any "libertarian dictatorship" (even one with you at the helm) because any dictatorship requires a centralized adminstrative organization - a government structure - in order to enforce the laws. In this case: the libertarian laws such as the protection of rights.

The centralization required under any kind of dictatorship is more hierarchical than an equivalent non-dictatorial system. A true libertarian dictatorship (if it could exist and remain libertarian) would be much less centralized than any other kind of dictatorship because it would require much less administration (bureaucracy) and much less planning (command or tyranny), but it would still be more hierarchical and centralized than a constitutional republic, because the republic requires less directives, planning and hierarchy in order to coordinate, and can therefore be more spread out, decentralized and local in its planning.

So, I don't vote for you as dictator of the world, sorry.
11.12.2006 10:35pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
Yes, the standard tactic of civil disobedience is "Punish me so everyone can see that the law is unjust." I see two aspects to this:

1. It's PR, which might make it more effective for you. (But it might not: Civil disobedients may suffer a lot for their cause.)

2. If the PR works, there's the additional benefit that you've gotten the law repealed, which is a Big Moral Plus. On my theory that you should act to achieve more moral results, that could in some circumstances strongly counsel in favor of this standard tactic.

But I don't think that this attitude is always necessary. I think laws against jaywalking are wrong. Therefore, I violate them whenever I feel it's safe and whenever it's convenient for me to do so. I have no shame about it, and if I ever get caught and ticketed, I'll be sorry only that I got caught. I don't need to do this publicly: the only benefit was a personal benefit; that's all I'm seeking; and it increases the total morality of the world, even if by a small amount.

Similarly for people who want to smoke pot and get some without anyone knowing except for themselves and their dealer; for 17-year-old lovers who violate statutory rape laws; and for someone who does a discreet cash transaction with the immigrant who mows his lawn. If they can violate those unjust laws and get away with it, more power to them. They've made the world a slightly better place.

If they felt like doing it publicly like Martin Luther King, they might be even greater heroes; but I don't require that sort of sacrifice from them.

* * *

Incidentally, why do I think constitutional democracy is best? Because of an empirical judgment as to how well rights would be respected under that sort of system. The content of the rights comes from libertarian theory -- so in a sense this does flow from libertarianism. The views about how well they would be respected under communism, Nazism, different forms of monarchy, democracies with different types of constitutions, etc., just come from deep reflection about the nature of the systems and empirical study of existing and historical systems -- and in that sense it's something that even non-libertarians can do.

Of course, much of this is just guesswork, so I can't justify every detail in detail. So my belief in constitutional democracy of some form is tentative, but, I think, not badly supported by the evidence.
11.12.2006 10:40pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
But, liberty, if the less centralized rights-protection apparatus really is better on libertarian grounds, then I, as Supreme Dictator, would of course adopt that sort of decentralized organization!
11.12.2006 11:25pm
liberty (mail) (www):
LOL. Nice try. The socialists tried to be equalitarians and democratic but were unable because they insisted on socialized owership; you would try to be decentralized but could not given that you insisted on being dictator; systems of organization are stubborn. Hierarchy is the only possibility if one person is at the top - thats how pyramids work. You need a horizontal system to have decentralization - with different kinds of transactions and communication.

Still, I'd vote for you for something else - Supreme Court or whatever.
11.12.2006 11:35pm
Waldensian (mail):

G'town is no longer the place where government employees can afford to live, unless they're rich Congressmen like Kerry (on O St.) or Cabinet Secretaries, though a few remain from when the area was not so desirable. Instead, they're mostly CEOs, lawyers, and lobbyists. Maybe not your favorite people, either, but they still have some basic rights.

Oh please.

First of all, lawyers ARE, without any doubt, my favorite people (I am one).

Meanwhile, the idea that having rude, loud students living next to somebody violates that somebody's "basic rights" is exactly the kind of pampered, sanctimonious, self-absorbed claptrap I would expect from my fellow lawyers living in multimillion dollar houses in Georgetown. These people should just get over it.

In situations like this, the ones complaining loudest -- the ones who are dying to use local government to hammer their neighbors -- are almost always the same people who read the Wall Street Journal editorial page religiously, and want to get government off their own backs.

Jeez, rich people without real problems really hack me off.
11.13.2006 1:34am
Harry Eagar (mail):
Well, I am not a libertarian, nor was our government founded on libertarian ideas. I like reading libertarian arguments, though, because they are often sharp (and funny) and sometimes require some pretty hard mental labor to refute.

But the idea that zoning, as a concept, is problematic, is not in that class of libertarian argument. Sure, install a 24-hour a day rock crusher next to a hospital. Why not?
11.13.2006 2:05am
Public_Defender (mail):
Sasha,
About "Liberty." Oops. I really messed that one up. Sorry.

As to your riff about the ideal libertarian government, that's interesting if you're starting out with a blank slate. But the property rights people have purchased include zoning limitations. Many people buy their property in part because of the restrictions. Your libertarian ideal would injure their property rights.

And the tiny minority who don't like the zoning rules have no "right" to be free from them. The bundle of property rights they bought never included the right to do whatever they want with their property.

So, by proposing the near-elimination of zoning, you would injure the property rights of the majority in order to protect the non-property-right whims of a tiny minority. How can that possibly be justified?
11.13.2006 6:30am
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
Harry Eagar: I've been trying to distinguish "good zoning" from "bad zoning" throughout. Rock crushers near hospitals (at least functioning ones) produce particular harms which, I agree, are real. I'm not one of those "do whatever you want as long as it's within the physical boundaries of your property" guys. At the very least, the crushing produces physical sound waves that make the hospital vibrate in ways that are harmful to it. I think there's potentially a right being violated there, so you can in principle restrict the right-violating activity. Now we already have nuisance law for that, but if zoning just gives you another enforcement mechanism, that's fine.

On the other hand, "don't paint your house pink" is an example of a restriction that doesn't protect anyone's rights. Some people feel it's ugly, and it may drive property values down, but it's not a rights violation. So that's bad zoning.

Now, you may ask: How do I know that loud noise is a rights violation while pink houses aren't? Well, I bring my whole rights theory to the table. You've got your own, and we can disagree on what the rights are and have a debate about that. But once I've determined that some activity is not rights-violating, then I conclude that any regulation of that activity (including zoning laws) is unjustified. Not that all zoning laws are unjustified, but zoning laws that restrict non-rights-violating activities are unjustified.

Public Defender: As I said just above, I come to the table with my whole rights theory. Suppose some zoning regulation is invalid; it was established in 1930, and since then the house has changed owners 10 times. That first guy in 1930 never lost his right to act in the way regulated by the ordinance. He retained a moral right to act in that way, but alas!, the right was unjustly burdened by a regulation.

When he sold the house, the new buyer did not buy a restricted set of moral rights; rather, he bought the full set of rights, including, alas!, an unjust restriction. Similarly, the neighbors never acquired a right to control their neighbor through this ordinance. They had a legal right, alas!, but they never acquired any moral right.

The value of the restriction may have been capitalized into the value of all the houses, but that has no normative force: The value of a beautiful sunset is also capitalized into the value of your house, but it's only a value based on a prediction that the sunsets will continue, and doesn't create an entitlement to the continuation of the sunsets. Similarly, an increase or decrease in value based on the presence of a regulation is only based on the prediction that the regulation will continue in force, and doesn't create any moral claim that the regulation should continue in force.

So this is how I justify repealing the regulation. The majority never had a right to unjustly restrict their neighbor. The neighbor had the right to act as he wanted all along. Sadly, the law didn't respect that right; but the moral rights were there all along. Now there's a possibility for the legal right to finally track the moral right. I'm getting rid of a benefit to the majority, but I don't need to lose much sleep over that, because they were never entitled to the benefit.

Of course, distinguishing between unjustified benefits (repealing an unjustified zoning regulation) and justified ones (repealing a justified zoning regulation that does protect actual property rights) -- requires a normative theory. You can't just see it through observation; moral analysis is required. So you need a political philosophy to distinguish between the two, for instance a rights theory that tells you which property rights are valid and which are invalid. That, I suspect, is where we're really disagreeing.
11.13.2006 9:51am
Byomtov (mail):
I think laws against jaywalking are wrong. Therefore, I violate them whenever I feel it's safe and whenever it's convenient for me to do so.

A veritable lion of liberty. ;)

Jaywalking may be making a statement, but I suspect it's more about convenience than ideology. To classify it as striking a bold blow for freedom is a bit of glorification, don't you think?

And what about the case where jaywalking does interfere with someone else? You cross against the light, preventing a car from taking its turn to drive through an intersection. Is this too a legitimate libertarian protest against unjust rules, or simple inconsiderate selfishness?

Your reasons for favoring constitutional democracy are fine, but I see no real connection to libertarianism. A dedicated advocate of broad social welfare programs might make arguments parallel to yours. Indeed, I could even argue that the constitutional democracies we observe have the sorts of extensive social welfare programs that libertarians dislike.
11.13.2006 10:36am
David Chesler (mail) (www):
What's wrong with Dad buying a 2.4 million dollar house? Compared to what he (and the 8 other Dads -- recall that the students are unrelated) would have spent on housing for however many years their progeny were living their, it might actually be a good investment. (Disclaimer: when I was an undergraduate I lived in housing, complete with an indoor pool and (in our unit) a balcony and a working fireplace that had been built to house rich students a century earlier. Given the location and the amenities it was probably worth then a couple of thousand dollars a month, probably the most luxurious housing I'll ever occupy.)

Let the city define what qualifies under its silly exemption, otherwise it's fair game. (Disclaimer2: I was ordained in the Universal Life Church by the late Rev. Hensley himself, but I've never claimed any benefit from that except once to park in the Reserved For Clergy parking space outside The First Church in Cambridge Unitarian Universalist when it wasn't tested.)
11.13.2006 11:17am
Harry Eagar (mail):
In the Georgetown case, the problem seems to be a religious exemption. In the last couple years, my newspaper spent a lot of time covering a dispute that was the reciprocal. A church wanted to expand its small structure on land zoned for agriculture. The neighbors objected that rural areas were expected to be, well, rural, with not much traffic, not much noise etc.

The county ag zoning was in some ways restrictive (no churches without a special use permit), but in other ways it was very permissive -- you could have farm-related processing activities (like a sugar mill) or recreation (rodeo).

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty got involved, arguing that the issue was impacts, that the impact of once-a-week (or even twice-a-week) church services was no greater than a rodeo.

It managed to get into both state and federal courts, and the church finally got its building permit. (Becket has more at its website; the case was Hale O Kaula.)

In Georgetown, it appears there was an obnoxious impact. While it's possible that a family of Kallikaks (say, mother, father, grandpa, 6 kids) would make just as much noise, I think it is arguable that, on average, families don't party 4 or 5 nights a week that way. I don't find that this zoning is unsupportable on its face.
11.13.2006 12:07pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
Byomtov: Indeed, one of the great things about constitutional democracy is that it has a certain political stability, since people of widely differing views can agree that it's the best system. (Of course, they would disagree on the exact content of the constitution.) It would probably have more social welfare programs than I'd like, but it would also have more of something-or-other than they'd like. That doesn't prevent it from maximizing both my preferences and theirs, provided of course you limit considerable to actually feasible systems.

And note that at no time did I glorify jaywalking by calling it "striking a bold blow for freedom." As you see, I said: "the only benefit was a personal benefit; that's all I'm seeking; and it increases the total morality of the world, even if by a small amount." Yes, it's about convenience, but where convenience also lines up with ideology, who cares?

And finally, I didn't say that jaywalking was always O.K. I just said I oppose laws against jaywalking, where jaywalking is banned as a whole, rather than dangerous jaywalking or disruptive jaywalking. So walking in crowded traffic is bad; jaywalking laws are O.K. to the extent they regulate that activity; and that activity is also probably regulable through more narrowly tailored laws, like something against endangering people. But safe, nondisruptive jaywalking is a good and honest activity.
11.13.2006 12:13pm
lucia (mail) (www):
I also don't entirely disapprove of the Georgetown college students. On the one hand, they are pushing the law; I'm sure they know they are violating the spirit of the law. I frequently don't applaud such things.

But there are two things in their favor:

First, the zoning commission should have written zoning ordinances that reflect whatever they believe are the real problems. If the problem is crowding, don't let 15 nuns live in the place either or force them to request a variance so they can present a case explaining why their crowding isn't real crowing. If the issue is fire safety (particulary after dorm fires), enforce fire safety ordinances. If the issue is noise, write a decent noise ordinance. If the problem is parking, write parking ordinances. Enforce the ordinances you write.

The second point in favor of the students is an important one. The only way to force zoning and planning commissions to carefully craft their provisions are for people to violate "the spirit" while living up to "the letter" -- and then let the zoning commission discover they crafted the wrong law.

Presumably, the zoning commission now has an opportunity to modify this law, crafting it to prohibit whatever real nuisances they wish to ban. If it's crowding, get rid of the exception for religious groups. If it's noise, set a decent noise ordinance and enforce it.

There should be no long term difficulty for the zoning commission-- unless their goal is to do something that violates state or federal laws. (Since this is DC, I guess state doesn't apply.)

I do have one quibble with Sasha over his view that he would be the ideal benevolent dictator. My father claimed the job of benevolent dictator when I was a child. I remember Dad mentioning this as early as 1968, which I suspect is before Sasha was born. Dad is still alive; he has dibs.
11.13.2006 3:48pm
A Georgetown Student:
Amen, Lucia. Couldn't've said it better myself.

My, my though, Sasha, a simple post over some college shenanigans has elevated into nearly 100 posts and talks about the ideal libertarian worldview. Who'd've thunk it?
11.13.2006 3:57pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
You never know what will inspire the readers. Thanks, readers!
11.13.2006 4:01pm
Harry Eagar (mail):
You cannot craft perfect zoning ordinances. In particular a 'decent noise ordinance' is in practice extremely difficult to achieve.

I spend a good deal of my time reporting -- not adjudicating -- neighborhood disputes. Cities create conflicts. Doing away with zoning doesn't reduce them.
11.13.2006 4:43pm
lucia (mail) (www):
In particular a 'decent noise ordinance' is in practice extremely difficult to achieve.

I've come to believe this is only because boards want to permit "revenue generating party A" to make as much noise as they please even if that penetrates into residential neighborhoods while only applying the noise ordinance to "non-renue generating party B".

For example: our village doesn't want to ban the week long loud fireworks and band concerns the village itself set off every 4th of July. They will send the police out to quite down a group of loud teenagers having a graduation party.

Ordinances that match their wishes could be written, but I think the village trustees also don't want to come right out and state the exceptions.
11.13.2006 4:57pm
Harry Eagar (mail):
The opposite would be the case here. We have an historic district, which means that 150-year-established uses (church parsonage) end up cheek by jowl with 'revenue-generating' uses (saloon).

The liquor commission, after a long struggle, decided the preacher's sleep was more important than the saloon owner's gelt. The saloon went out of business (but was reopened by a less obnoxious operator).

On the other hand, our noise ordinance applies only to liquor licensees. Attempts to craft a general noise ordinance always fail because the noise from plantations, which run right up to town limits, is uncontrollable -- short of shutting down the plantations.

Like I say, noise ordinances are hard to draw.
11.13.2006 9:34pm
lucia (mail) (www):
First Harry, it sounds like your village (or liquor board) actually wrote a noise ordinance that worked -- or at least drove the tavern out of business. So, it's an example where the ordinance succeeded?

I can't quite comment on the "plantation" issue because I'm unfamiliar with plantations. Is that a farm or some sort? Why are they especially noisy?

I still don't see why a noise ordinance can't be written if one wishes to try. I can see why the ordinances might have exceptions carved out by the legislature-- for example, Illinois state noise ordinance has exceptions for sporting complexes. If it didn't have this exception, Wrigley Field would have to close.

Illinois also has provisions for noise associated with zoning. A farm isn't zoned residential. It gets to make farm noises. If you live in a residential area that abuts to a farm zoned farming, well... tough! (Farms still have noise ordinances. They just aren't as stringent as residential areas. So, yes, if you live at the zoning border, you will get more noise. The same holds true for other things like manure smells and horse flies)

So, exceptions and abrupt transitions in zoning can be dealt with -- if the legislators want to deal with them.

I think quite a bit of the difficulties associated with good noise ordinances is village boards doesn't want one.
11.13.2006 11:11pm
Public_Defender (mail):

So this is how I justify repealing the regulation. The majority never had a right to unjustly restrict their neighbor. The neighbor had the right to act as he wanted all along. Sadly, the law didn't respect that right; but the moral rights were there all along. Now there's a possibility for the legal right to finally track the moral right. I'm getting rid of a benefit to the majority, but I don't need to lose much sleep over that, because they were never entitled to the benefit.

There are people spending life in prison because their attorney didn't raise the right claim at the right time, and you want to let this property owner raise a claim that should have been raised 80 years ago? In the criminal world, a month can literally mean the difference between life and death.

Do you also support eliminating statutes of limitations and letting people sue for eighty-year-old torts?

At some point, the law concedes that society has reordered itself around a mistake. That concession has many names (res judicata, laches, estoppel, statute of limitations, etc.), but it is a strong part of our legal system.


Of course, distinguishing between unjustified benefits (repealing an unjustified zoning regulation) and justified ones (repealing a justified zoning regulation that does protect actual property rights) -- requires a normative theory. You can't just see it through observation; moral analysis is required. So you need a political philosophy to distinguish between the two, for instance a rights theory that tells you which property rights are valid and which are invalid. That, I suspect, is where we're really disagreeing.


I think you're right about this. Maybe I missed it, but I haven't seen a consistent theory from you that would distinguish occupancy restrictions from, say, set back restrictions.

I'd probably default to the takings rules. I'm paraphrasing a little, but if the government deprives an owner of substantial economic use, then the government should pay.

I also reiterate two points: First, zoning laws work better than restrictive covenents because people can change the law if most of them decide it makes their life worse. For example, the colors that a restrictive covenent may have permitted in 1973 might not look so good in 2006. Or restricting people to single-pane, wood-frame windows might make less sense in 50 years if energy prices continue to skyrocket. If I have a restrictive covenent on window panes, I'm stuck as along as one hold-out insists that we keep them because he likes them.

Part of the bargain you get when buying a zoned property is that zoning laws can change (for better or worse).

Second, zoning laws are market oriented. Cities (and even neighborhoods within cities) compete with each other based on zoning. This competition is a strong check against abuse. These college students had hundreds if not thousands of zoning schemes in the DC area to choose from. That's competition.

Libertarians sometimes forget that unlike the federal government, local governments are competitive entities. People who don't like what one city is doing can move to another. Businesses who don't like the business climate in one city can move to another.
11.14.2006 5:20am
Public_Defender (mail):
As to competition between local governments, I found that it was less hassle to leave one municipality for another than it was to leave AOL.

People can choose their local government the same way they can choose their cell phone service or choose where to shop and what to buy.

When it comes many issues, local governments are less like the federal government and more like private companies.
11.14.2006 5:49am
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
I'll just note that I'm not saying that legal remedies against bad zoning should necessarily persist forever. (Maybe they should, but I'm not taking a position on that here.) My point was only a moral point, in response to your question of how I can justify to myself getting rid of people's property rights: I say I don't have a problem justifying that to myself because the rule was unjust to begin with and continued to be unjust.

Now once you get into questions of how you implement all this in a legal order, perhaps you want to have statutes of limitations, just like, as you say, criminal defendants can get screwed over by not raising the right argument at the right time. So I'm not arguing that these college students are entitled to get the ordinance invalidated as a taking or anything; I'm just declaring my sympathy, and we don't need strong procedural rules for sympathy.

As for a big consistent philosophy, I suspect the comments section of this post isn't the place for it. But as should be clear, the question is whether anyone's being "harmed" in a libertarian sense. So noise restrictions are O.K., perhaps even safety rules are O.K., but occupancy restrictions look a lot like setback restrictions to me, so I'm not sure whether I even want to distinguish those two.

Third, smart covenants -- like in homeowner associations -- should include provisions for changing the covenants by some majority or supermajority vote. In fact, if you could show me that a municipal zoning scheme was just a voting procedure established by covenant, I'd have no problem with this.

And fourth, it's not clear that the ease of leaving makes a difference as to the substantive content of rights. Countries shouldn't restrict their citizens' free speech rights, for instance; and if it turns out that countries are easy to leave, that's practically relevant (i.e., I would predict that such a country will be less oppressive than one which is hard to leave), but not morally relevant (i.e., that government gets no extra slack as to what rights it can violate).
11.14.2006 8:09am
Public_Defender (mail):
I don't see see the moral difference to buying a house with a covenent that's registered in the recorder's office and one with a zoning restriction filed in the city clerk's office. Even the original owner bought the house with a limitation that local government could change or add zoning rules, just like someone who buys a house with a covenant changeable by majority vote knows that the majority can change the covenant

I limited my comments to local government zoning rules, and you instantly changed the subject to national free speech restrictions. Locality is important because people choose where they live in part because of the property rules. The ease of movement from municipality to municipality makes zoning laws more like covenents than national laws. Again, I don't see the moral distinction between local zoning rules and private covenents, especially covenents that can be changed by majority rule. People choose their zoning regime just like they choose their restrictive covenents.

Free speech rights are different than property rights. Except in extreme cases, the government cannot take our right to speech for the common good. But the Constitution expressly gives government the right to take our property for the common good (with payment). Further, defining "property" is a governmental function. Since government must define what property is, government (especially local government) must play a role in defining what bundle of property rights you get when you buy a house.
11.14.2006 7:06pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
Public Defender: Obviously, our difference has to do with how we conceptualize property rights. I changed the subject to free speech rights precisely because I consider them similar to property rights, and I wanted to show how the fact of government regulation was insufficient to change the baseline rights. You differentiate them with (1) a constitutional argument and (2) a "government must define property" argument.

Argument (1) is irrelevant because I'm making moral arguments, not constitutional arguments. The Constitution is not a complete moral code, or even a partial moral code -- it's a particular way of organizing a government, which implements a particular political compromise that was reached by particular people at a particular time, and interpreted by other politically appointed bodies over time. Why does that have any moral force? If we had no First Amendment, my moral arguments about free speech would be unchanged.

As for argument (2), I don't think defining "property" is a government function. Sure, government defines the legal concept of property, because it's useful for it to do so. But the moral concept of property exists independently of government, which is why you can talk about expropriation even in a condition of anarchy.

If I moved with a couple of people moved to the moon and we all set up our houses and lived in them the way we live in our houses today, and then one day while I was gone someone tore my house down or started occupying it, would I be unable to say there was theft? Of course not: Property emerges from the fact of possession, people's social practices, and similar things.

If there's a government, it may choose to respect that concept, or it may choose to violate it; but we judge government by how well it respects these preexisting rights, just as we judge government by how well it respects our life and liberty rights.

As I said, government does (in our system, with title registration and suchlike) define what our legal rights are, so of course the bundle of legal rights depends on that. But this has no inherent relation to what moral rights you have, i.e., whether I can say "It's unjust that you're unable to do X; they should change that."
11.14.2006 8:12pm