Cat herding, and the quirks of zoning law

Real estate, Business, Funny, Money, NakedLaw, Rights

What do you do when you are forced to resign from your job running the largest commercial aircraft manufacturer in the world? If you’re former Boeing CEO Harry Stonecipher, you switch your attention from jets to…cats. Lots of cats. A dozen of them, to be precise.

Cat herding seems like a harmless enough quirk for a wealthy former CEO. But Biltmore Forest, North Carolina, took exception to Stonecipher’s request for a waiver of the upscale town’s three-pet zoning limit.

Stonecipher wasn’t happy with Biltmore Forest’s decision to deny the waiver without comment. Considering he and his wife had just purchased a 6,700 square foot mansion—seemingly roomy enough to accommodate his self-described “tribe”—one can understand why he might object. So, as the Seattle Times reported in August, Stonecipher decided to take Biltmore Forest to court. “We have the intent. We have the means,” Stonecipher told the paper. “We have the time, and the patience to take this as far as we need to take it.” Meow!

Zoning laws may vary—widely

While the outcome of Stonecipher’s lawsuit has yet to be determined, not everyone facing the cold-hearted realities of local zoning regulations has Stonecipher’s financial means. Still, it’s something many have to deal with, and conflicts on just what a person is allowed to do with a plot of land can have unpredictable, even bizarre, results:

When pigs don’t fly

A family in Kingston Township in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, just wanted to be left alone with Gemma, their pot-bellied pig. But the township said nope, no farm animals in town. Not having deep pockets, the family countered that the city was mischaracterizing Gemma. The pot-bellied porker was actually a therapy pig, providing emotional support in a way no mere cat or dog ever could.

That didn’t work, either. So the family started a petition. More than 1,000 signatures later, the issue is still in doubt.

Too many veggies

According to the Economist, Steve Miller, a man living in DeKalb County, Georgia, who wanted to grow his own greens ran afoul of zoning regulations limiting vegetable growing in town. City officials were offended enough to slap Mr. Miller with a $5,000 fine.

Miller responded by trying to have his land rezoned, but the city countered by filing a lawsuit. Are DeKalb County officials still traumatized by not being allowed to leave the table until they finished their veggies as children?

“We understand the concept of continuing code violations, but common sense has to step in at some point and say, ‘This guy is not a danger to society–he’s growing vegetables,” said Lauren Hansford, one of the attorneys assisting Miller. “This is becoming nothing more than governmental harassment, and we do not understand why there has been so much vindictiveness.”

Zoning laws as social engineering

Counties, towns and other municipalities often use zoning laws to try and control activities or behaviors within their borders. One of the most common ways to limit “undesirable” businesses—like, say, strip clubs—is to create onerous, or even impossible to follow, zoning laws that effectively ban certain types of businesses from operating at all.

To take just one recent example, Prince George’s County, Maryland, or “PG County,” as the locals not-so-ironically refer to it, rezoned in a way that shut down a dozen strip clubs in residential areas with one sharp stroke of the pen. “Folks who live in these neighborhoods don’t want the added traffic,” Permits and Inspections Department spokesperson Susan Hubbard told the local NBC affiliate. “They don’t want the noise they generate.”

Want to live free? Move to Houston

Of course many zoning battles involve more routine disputes between property owners and local officials—arguments over the right to put a third story on a house or to open a business in a residential area. Resolving such disputes often requires the assistance of an attorney who specializes in land use and zoning laws.

But if you really want to avoid zoning laws in an urban area, there’s only one sure solution: move to Houston. Space City is the only major city in the country with no zoning laws. None. This has been a lot of fun for certain residents, including, according to The New York Times, a kid who wanted to turn his house into a public library (with his parents’ blessing), and the guy who decided to cover his house with flattened beer cans—about 50,000 cans of suds.

That’s right. 50,000 cans of beer on the wall. Land of the free, indeed.