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Commentary: Exclusionary zoning has long, shameful history in Mount Pleasant

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Decades of zoning have shaped Mount Pleasant's growth and population patterns. 

Ed Buckley’s recent column describing the historically “mean-spirited and even bigoted purposes” behind single-family zoning was well timed. This month marks the 70th anniversary of Mount Pleasant zoning.

In 1949, the town’s population of 1,857 lived on 300 acres. With less than one of those 300 acres zoned for multi-family, a seed of housing inequity was sown.

Zoning is segregation. Its origins involved the politics of exclusion. After drafting New York’s first-in-the-country comprehensive zoning in 1916, Robert Whitten launched a consulting practice in Cleveland. The “Great Migration” was under way with blacks attracted northward by employment opportunities. Cleveland’s black population quadrupled from 8,410 in 1910 to 34,264 in 1920. Developers built apartments to meet housing demand.

Fearful officials in adjacent Lakewood and East Cleveland commissioned Whitten to create ordinances isolating multi-family housing into zones. Euclid, next to East Cleveland, adopted zoning in 1922. Skeptical of politicizing property rights, William Ambler sued Euclid arguing violation of due process.

Ruling for Ambler in 1924, federal judge David Westenhaver recognized Euclidean zoning as a system designed “to classify the population and segregate them according to their income or situation in life.” Precisely!

Following Euclid’s appeal, in 1926 the U.S. Supreme Court issued a 6-3 ruling overturning Westenhaver’s decision. The landmark opinion in Euclid v. Ambler included language proclaiming “the apartment house is a mere parasite.” Zoning went viral.

In 1930, 62,265 people lived on Charleston’s peninsula of which 28,019 (45 percent) were black. Enter Morris Knowles, another “expert” with a Cleveland office. Knowles advocated a strategy to push blacks off the city’s lower peninsula. Charleston’s Jim Crow-era City Council adopted Ohio-style segregation, arguably committing cultural genocide by outlawing the city’s 250-year-old urban patterns.

Eighty years later, the 2010 census counted a depopulated peninsula of 32,232 people, of which 10,455 (32 percent) were black.

Back in Mount Pleasant, 30 years of exclusionary zoning had cut the town’s population density in half, with 14,000 people spread over 5,000 acres in 1979. Blind to the impacts of land area growing at twice the rate of population, Town Council and staff barged ahead.

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At the August 1979 Town Council meeting, a dissenting councilman observed “the most valuable property in the area is South of Broad and over here in the Old Village. None of this existed when we had zoning laws and could not have existed if we did.”

Ignoring him, the remainder of council adopted a more convoluted zoning ordinance, with greater bias against affordable housing. At the same meeting, Councilman Jimmy Bagwell, who now leads the anti-growth Save Shem Creek group, mentioned “a moratorium on developing multi-family units in the town.”

Confronting Mount Pleasant’s longstanding housing prejudice is not easy. By a 5-4 vote in 1995, council shot down my family’s attempt to include multi-family homes in I’On. Sacrificing multi-family was the political price necessary for eventual approval in 1997.

In 2013, my company began developing Earl’s Court consistent with the town’s vision to revitalize Coleman Boulevard. The Post and Courier quoted a fearful resident: “This takes away the appeal of our neighborhood. We paid top dollar to be in the neighborhood. This lets you get in for $250,000.”

At least the guy was honest. Usually, such an attitude is masked under a pretext of “managed development.”

Save Shem Creek’s crusade to increase setbacks, impact fees and parking requirements were among covert tactics used to gut Mount Pleasant’s award-winning Urban Corridor Overlay District. Council’s failure to honor prior commitments has poisoned town politics and led to costly litigation.

Today Mount Pleasant has 88,000 people on 30,000 acres — 100 times the size of its historic core. Yet, per Mayor Will Haynie, there is no room at the inn. The latest exclusionary program is a permit-rationing scheme including, you guessed it, further bias against affordable housing.

Can’t we agree divisive policies to “exclude thy neighbor” are unfair and do not serve us well?

Vincent Graham is owner and president of the I’On Group.

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