TCU-area building moratorium: Welcome to Fort Worth, California!

Jon Samson

You’d expect this in California, but not in Texas. Not in Fort Worth.

In California, overbearing land-use and planning regulations stifle economic growth, access to affordable housing, wealth creation, and sound use of land resources. California is littered with examples of oppressive regulatory policies that deprive property owners of individual property rights and unnecessarily drive up the cost of housing. This is a prominent reason that California real estate is so expensive and unattainable.

So the Fort Worth City Council’s unanimous decision to place a legally questionable moratorium on single-family building permits in the proposed TCU-area overlay district is nothing short of California-like regulatory overreach.

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The Texas Government Code allows municipal authorities to stop harmful or injurious development and construction activity that may overburden municipal infrastructure, including police and fire services. However, this emergency action by the council was not taken to ensure that residents maintained access to vital infrastructure or resources such as police, fire and utilities. Rather, this action by the council was taken because some TCU-area neighbors and neighborhood associations disapprove of the way other property owners lawfully use their properties.

The core allegation, in fact, is that property owners are renting single-family homes to up to five unrelated adults – a practice that is completely legal under Fort Worth city ordinances and permissible under other statutes.

So why should residents in the TCU area and other parts of Fort Worth be concerned about this moratorium and the related proposal of a TCU-area overlay district that would impose restrictions on the use of private property? Because the regulatory taking of property rights from even one property owner affects all of us.

History continues to demonstrate that private property and homeownership are part of the American dream. Most Texans consider homeownership to be their single best long-term investment and a primary source of wealth and financial security. Countless generations of Texans have counted on their homes for their children’s education, their own retirement and a personal sense of well-being.

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Yet, private property and homeownership are so much more than an investment. In good times and in bad, the opportunity to own property has been a cherished ideal and a source of pride, accomplishment, social stability and peace of mind.

At issue in this case is whether neighbors should be allowed to dictate how other neighbors use property. One of the core justifications for the moratorium was the potential impact on property values. So why stop at occupancy? If protecting individual property values is the role of our City Council then let’s use the council to make everyone who doesn’t have a swimming pool install a swimming pool. Or, for those who have remodeled, let’s use the council to require your neighbors to remodel so that their remodeled home protects the value of your remodeled home.

I am empathetic to the concerns of the TCU-area residents but I strongly believe there are less intrusive resources available to mitigate many of their concerns. The most inappropriate response is the proposed TCU-area overlay district, which, if passed without grandfathering, would be exponentially worse for the smaller two- and three-bedroom single-family homes in the area and have the opposite effect than intended.

I support all property owners and their individual rights to determine the “highest and best use” of their property, in accordance with applicable rules and laws. The property owner who decides to tear down an existing structure to rebuild a better home for his family has the right to do so; the property owner who chooses to live in a mid-1900’s bungalow as it was originally constructed has the right to do so; the property owner who chooses to rent his home to others has the right to do so; and none of them has the right to force any particular “highest and best use” on neighbors.

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Most important, our City Council and civic leaders should never allow any faction in our community to use the reins of government to take control of the regulatory and political process in a way that impedes lawful use of private property. The fact that the resolution creating the moratorium speaks at length about community character, desirability and value while only making scant references to excessive traffic and parking demands only highlights its questionable legality.

Be certain, the battle over property rights is escalating in Fort Worth – and, for now, supporters of private property rights appear to be losing.

Jon Samson is executive vice president of the Greater Fort Worth Builders Association.