If there were any doubts that private property rights and economic freedom were in a precarious position, they were easily erased in a recent California appellate court decision in Wal Mart Stores, Inc. V. City of Turlock. The City of Turlock passed an ordinance prohibiting big box retailers that dedicate 5% or more of their floor area to groceries. It was explicitly designed to keep out a Wal Mart superstore. The city cited its desire, through urban planning, to foster a particular neighborhood feel and character, and that certain businesses–Wal Mart–were inconsistent with that plan. Therefore, they can prohibit them to protect existing, neighborhood businesses and the plan. The appellate court, in a 3-0 ruling, wrote: We conclude that (1) a city may exercise its police power to control and organize development within its boundaries as a means of serving the general welfare, (2) City made a legitimate policy choice when it decided to organize development using neighborhood shopping centers dispersed throughout the city, (3) the ordinance was reasonably related to protecting that development choice, and (4) no showing was made that the restrictions significantly affected residents of surrounding communities. Notably, in a the resolution banning super stores like Wal Mart, the resolution was explicit in its belief that the city can and should intervene to protect local businesses. One of the “findings” in the city’s resolution, for example, was: “WHEREAS the establishment of discount superstores in Turlock is likely to negatively impact the vitality and economic viability of the city’s neighborhood commercial centers by drawing sales away from traditional supermarkets located in these centers.” What we see in Turlock, and simply validated by the California courts, is the “fatal conceit” in action. This is socialism writ communitywide–the city can script the entire community if it (re: a majority of council) wants to. Of course, this in a logical and inevitable outcome of urban planning as it is currently practiced since it is by nature hostile to capitalism, dynamic (and organic) communities, and individual freedom.
Samuel R. Staley, Ph.D. is a senior research fellow at Reason Foundation and managing director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center at Florida State University in Tallahassee where he teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in urban planning, regulation, and urban economics. Prior to joining Florida State, Staley was director of urban growth and land-use policy for Reason Foundation where he helped establish its urban policy program in 1997.