Harry Potter and the Zoning Board

             In case you haven’t seen the news articles, Harry Potter series author, J.K. Rowling, had to get permission from the Edinburgh City Council to construct a couple of tree houses for her children amidst a deluge of protests from neighbors.  I’ve enjoyed several articles on this guerre du jour because it illustrates how a neighborhood’s reaction to change is a universal dynamic.

             In fairness to the neighbors, it really wasn’t just a couple of tree houses. Ms. Rowling – one of the wealthiest women in Britain outside of the royals themselves – sought to construct for her 7 and 9 year-old children two interconnected, architect-designed, 40’ tall structures that resembled Hogwarts itself. The estimated cost is £250,000. 

             As I post this today, the pound to dollar exchange rate is 1:1.6223, meaning that, in dollars, the cost of these tree houses is $405,575.  Estimated, of course. Unless she adds more secret tunnels or another turreted roof, to which I say “go for it!”

             So what were neighbors’ beefs?  One complained that it would be “out of character with the area” and another complained that it could be seen from the road.  Yet another disingenuously proclaimed that his true concern was for the children’s safety.

             All of this is Hogwarts hogwash.  As a multi-decade veteran of land use wars I’ve learned to interpret the coded language that pervades such public hearings. Often it’s a thinly veiled dislike of racial or ethic groups. Other times it’s fear of change or fear of an outsider’s  “invasion of  turf” that one cannot control.  And then there are the times when it’s about wealth and status and how we attach our fragile egos to the size of our homes, the models of our cars and the ways our geographical surroundings add visual support to our sense of self-importance.

             Which is what I intuit was going on.  Ms. Rowling lives in a 17th c. mansion in an area near other similar structures owned by people who can afford to buy and maintain centuries-old mansions. While neither I nor you live in a community with 17th century mansions, all of us can name “the” neighborhood in our communities whose inhabitants can display their wealth and prestige simply by providing their street address. 

             In a country as old as Scotland, such homes (and castles) have always created an instant status and the type of social access that grants entry to the events that most muggles don’t even know occur.

             Ms. Rowling’s $400,000 tree house battle reminds me of the occasional McMansion” debate in the U.S. where newly-constructed, super-sized homes in pre-existing neighborhoods are criticized for being incongruous.  Incongruous is a fair complaint, but there’s also a hefty dose of neighbors’ egos being bruised when someone of perceived lesser social status creates a permanent, ostentatious and in-your-face neighborhood monument that says “my bank accounts are bigger than yours.”

             The reverse side of this coin has a similar face.  Folks who live in large lot subdivisions will come to hearings to protest vehemently that a newer subdivision is planned next door with lots half the size.  Why?  Because smaller lots mean smaller houses, and smaller houses can be bought by people with lesser means, and part of proving to yourself and to the world that you have made it is moving to a neighborhood that is separate from “those people.”  But if they can now build against your backyard, you’ve suddenly been pulled a couple of rungs back down that ladder you’ve been struggling so hard to climb.

             But we can’t talk about losing the outward badges of our success in public hearings, so we talk about loss of property values, traffic and stormwater runoff as surrogate issues.

             J.K. Rowling has changed world history — you can debate the degree if you wish — by providing a vocabulary and characters and concepts and references that have become a common cultural idiom for at least two generations of the world’s consumers.  (The four fastest selling books in world history are the last four books in the Harry Potter series).  I predict that the Harry Potter phenomenon of our time in history will be taught centuries from now the same way we study Greek literature and Chaucer.

             And I predict that after all of us are gone those same tree houses will one day become tourist stops.  Then the neighbors can complain about the traffic.

Next up

Later this week I’ll post a case law update on how the Court of Appeals denied a cell tower in Morrisville, a case which illustrates key aspects of quasi-judicial hearings.  And after that, stay tuned for my assessment of the Lanvale Properties APFO case that was recently decided by the N.C. Supreme Court.  Lanvale could be the most important land use case decided this year.

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