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Tradition, philosophy lead Victoria to remain third-largest city without zoning

By Gabe Semenza
Nov. 13, 2010 at 5:13 a.m.

Because Victoria is unzoned, examples of land-use conflicts abound. Residents of the Northcrest subdivision, for example, fought - but lost - the development of A-1 Homes, an adjacent mobile home dealership on Northgate Road. As Victoria teeters on a potential wave of growth, is the city's lack of zoning good or bad?

Frank Buhler owns land of all sorts - from large, flat city parcels to quiet country pastures disturbed only by the sounds of a creek.

His family, which passed these lands from generation to generation, holds differing levels of sentiment for each long-held tract. He bristles at the notion the government could tell him how to use that land.

"What right do you have to tell me what I can do with my property?" Buhler asked.

In Victoria, property owners face less government infringement than in most of Texas. The city is the third biggest Texas city, behind only Houston and Pasadena, to lack zoning.

But is a lack of zoning good or bad? How do the positives and negatives affect Victoria?

If the city undergoes notable growth, will the city and its people benefit or fall victim to market-driven progress?

City planners felt strongly enough about the future to warn Victoria's leaders. Uncontrolled growth, the planners fear, might one day decrease the city's quality of life.

The history

Zoning is the public regulation of land and building use to control the character of a city. Zoning at its most basic regulates land and districts, and whether they can be used for residential or commercial purposes.

Never in Victoria's history has it had zoning. The 41 families who settled here in the early 1820s and those who followed built Victoria without zoning laws.

During the 1970s, however, the federal government required local municipalities to hold hearings and solicit input about zoning.

Will Armstrong, Victoria's current mayor, was chairman of the commission formed during the 1970s to make a recommendation to the city council. Public opposition to zoning was overwhelming, Armstrong said, and he recommended the city remain unzoned.

John Kaminski, the city's director of planning, said that consensus never changed.

"Victoria is a very conservative community that historically has not wanted to go that direction," Kaminski said. "The sentiment is stronger in Victoria, for whatever reason."

In 2000, the Victoria city council commissioned a study to learn how best to position the city for the future and to preserve its historic touches. The result: "Victoria 2025: A Comprehensive Plan."

The plan, in part, aims to carefully direct growth despite a lack of zoning, which prohibits the city from adequately guiding any of it.

"The lack of direction in the city's growth patterns has contributed to the emergence of several issues and concerns that negatively impact its citizens, economy and urban environment," the plan notes. "For our city to look, feel and function as we want it to, it is important Victoria has the ability to implement its land development goals."

Problems arise?

Because the city lacks zoning, planners can only encourage growth in certain areas. They annex land, for example, and provide infrastructure hoping a residential developer will build a neighborhood.

In the case of commercial hopes, the city developed a 320-acre industrial park called The Lone Tree Business Center, which Caterpillar will soon call home.

Other examples of how the city tries to encourage certain development abound. The city annexed:

About 300 acres in 1999 on the north side of Loop 463 between the Victoria Mall and Salem Road, now a commercial hotspot.

436 acres in 1999 on the west side of U.S. Highway 87, the location of a new high school.

The 215-acre Ball Airport site in 2007, a setting for new homes.

The problem, however, is planners can only encourage certain development. Without zoning laws, a manufacturer could buy land in an area set aside for homes and nobody could do anything to stop it.

These land-use conflicts manifest in smaller ways, too. In older neighborhoods, which often either lack deed restrictions or carry expired ones, residents can convert homes into small businesses.

"It's wide open in Old Victoria," said Victoria builder David Hurst. "You have commercial businesses right next to historic homes."

Benchmark residents fought developers when plans were revealed for a Super 8 Motel on the neighborhood's north end. Similarly, Northcrest residents tried to stop developers from building a new mobile home park on the adjacent Glascow Street.

In both cases, developers prevailed.

"These sorts of things can affect the value of your home, and that's why people get upset," said Judy VanZant, a Victoria real estate agent. "You see nice homes next to homes that people don't care for. You see a lot of storage buildings, mechanic shops, convenience stores and other commercial properties in or near neighborhoods. That's almost always going to affect residential property values."

Zoning, on the other hand, gives property owners an assurance of who or what their neighbors will and won't be.

Regulations increase

During the past 20 years, the city implemented several forms of regulation - stricter subdivision and other development ordinances. These ordinances regulate standards such as landscaping requirements, building setback lines and commercial screening fences, for starters.

Coupled with private deed restrictions in many of Victoria's neighborhoods, these public ordinances already help to set aesthetic and other standards, zoning opponents say.

Those opponents also say keeping Victoria the way it is protects property rights and keeps new development simple. Zoning is just another level of government red tape.

"For the most part, on a large scale, development sort of polices itself," Kaminski, the city planner, said. "You wouldn't assume we don't have zoning. Our city is not laid out much differently than cities that do have zoning."

Even if Victoria residents wanted zoning, the process of enacting land-use regulations in an established city would be difficult at best - more so, perhaps, in today's political climate.

"People are just flat against government regulations right now," said Lee Swearingen, a Victoria real estate broker. "If you try to limit what a property owner can do with his property, you're going to get pushed back. If a guy wants to operate a mechanics shop out of his garage, he has the right to do that now."

Armstrong said the free enterprise system, and not government, should regulate the best uses of private property.

"There is no perfect system," Armstrong said. "I'll work with what we have."

If Victoria could start anew and develop from scratch, Armstrong added, he'd favor zoning - but not under any other circumstances.

A look at Sugar Land

When people discuss cities that were zoned early on, many point to Sugar Land, an upscale Houston suburb.

Before the city formed, Imperial Sugar built banks, schools, hospitals and homes to help recruit workers there.

Regina Morales, a Victoria High School graduate, works for the Sugar Land Economic Development Council.

"Sugar Land incorporated into a city in 1959," Morales said. "Then, in the early 1970s, we were discovered by master planners and developers. The city adopted the master planned standards into its charter not long after."

Planners created buffers between retail and commercial development and set aside 900 acres for city parks. They enforced steep building codes, as well as commercial and neighborhood standards.

The result? Sugar Land boasts:

Population growth of 158 percent from 1990 to 2000 - from 37,000 people to 61,000. Its current population is about 75,000.

A tax rate that declined each year for 11 years.

An average household income of $100,537.

"Zoning allowed us to develop in an orderly fashion," Morales said.

The majority of Texas cities are zoned. Even established cities with populations of greater than 50,000 - Wichita Falls, Bryan and Baytown, for example - became zoned during the past 15 years.

Baytown, a city of 71,000 people located 30 miles east of downtown Houston, enacted zoning in July 1995. Now, the city's land is zoned residential, mixed use or industrial.

The purpose of the zoning there was to protect existing neighborhoods and encourage developers to eye projects there.

Kelly Carpenter, Baytown's director of planning, said the city is revising its original zoning law to further increase standards.

"It's a long and tedious process, but I think it's important to go through so the city and residents get what they need out of future growth," she said.

Victoria's future

In "Victoria 2025: A Comprehensive Plan," planners determined Victoria needs to direct growth or face negative consequences: sprawl, traffic congestion, inefficient city services and more.

Planners also determined the city needs to encourage in-fill development and protect the integrity of its neighborhoods.

"If the city wants to guide the direction of future development, a more proactive approach must be adopted," the plan notes. "The steering committee also recognizes threats to residential neighborhoods as a real problem in Victoria, and places a high priority on their protection."

Incompatible land uses, after all, can destroy a neighborhood's integrity, hurt property values and damage quality of life.

The city's plan identifies simple zoning - via an approach called Neighborhood Protection - as one possible tool to reach for in the future.

While the plan has no timeline, it could zone existing neighborhoods as residential; the rest of the city could be zoned mixed use.

"For certain situations, it would be nice to have zoning," Kaminski, the planner, said. "It's not something that happens overnight, though. For now, I don't see things happening any differently than they have in recent years. Here, the market will continue to dictate the direction and type of growth."

That suits Buhler, the Victoria landowner, just fine.

Among his many parcels, Buhler offered portions of a 1,500-acre tract near the airport as ground for a local university to build anew - if it so chooses. If the city zoned that land industrial or residential, the deal might not work.

"I don't know that zoning would hurt us, but I also know it's not always fair," Buhler said. "Without zoning, the best use of private property comes naturally. It just seems to work its own way out pretty successfully."



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