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‘Zoning police’ get OK to raze property rights

Signs of neglect abound in the Cloud 9 mobile home community on the eastern edge of Sierra Vista, where many properties sit empty with boarded up windows. But nobody blames Amanda Root for the decline. 

Her parked trailer is clean, safe and well-maintained on a lot that she has owned for more than 20 years. Unfortunately, the zoning police cared about none of that when they came looking for violations in July 2020. They focused instead on a distinction in the law between “manufactured homes” and “recreational vehicles,” which include any housing unit on wheels. 

Sierra Vista classifies Root’s trailer as an RV, which should not be a problem. Sierra Vista allows people to live in RVs, including in a section of Cloud 9 designated as a manufactured home “park.” But Root’s property is just down the street from that part. The city defines the cluster of lots where she lives as a manufactured home “subdivision.” 

The difference has nothing to do with public safety or general welfare. Instead, it hinges on plot size. Companies with at least two acres can run parks and collect rent from multiple tenants, while property owners on smaller parcels must remain in subdivisions. 

One company operates under both systems in Cloud 9, maintaining a park about 200 feet from Root’s doorstep while simultaneously managing individual lots within the surrounding subdivision. Visitors never would know the difference. They would just see one large community with litter, weeds and rundown properties in all directions. 

Paul Avelar

Paul Avelar

Only the zoning police worry about the imaginary line that cuts through Cloud 9. Four months into the Covid pandemic, during a nationwide eviction moratorium, they told Root that her home violated their code and gave her an ultimatum: Relocate her home from the land that she owns to the other part of Cloud 9 within 30 days or be “subject to further enforcement action.” 

Root also could have replaced her trailer with a different house and stayed where she was, but neither option worked. As an older, disabled woman on a fixed income, she could not afford to start paying rent on someone else’s land. And she could not afford a new home on her own land. Essentially, the city gave Root one choice: Homelessness. 

“I’ve looked at different options,” she says. “There’s nothing out there that I can afford. A tent? Where am I going to go? Behind Food City? They kick all the homeless out anyway.” 

Besides being cruel, Sierra Vista’s order violates the Arizona Constitution. Cities can use zoning laws to serve public needs, but not in overbearing ways that infringe unnecessarily on private property rights. The government also must grant due process before ordering compliance. 

Daryl James

Daryl James

Rather than sit back and accept the violation of her rights, Root and other Cloud 9 residents partnered with the Institute for Justice and sued Sierra Vista. Cochise County Superior Court responded by dismissing the case without considering the underlying issues, ruling that the plaintiffs could not sue to protect themselves. Instead, they had to wait until the city sued them. 

The decision not only undercuts Root’s rights, but it threatens the rights of any Arizonan facing unconstitutional abuses by the government. 

Arizonans have long had the right to go to court to fend off threats before aggressors do harm. Forcing parties to wait would be like “compelling them to pull the trigger to discover if the gun is loaded,” one court memorably put it. 

Yet waiting to see if Sierra Vista’s gun is loaded is what the court said Root and her neighbors must do. Fortunately, they have another avenue for recourse in the Arizona Court of Appeals, where they will continue their fight. 

The additional litigation would not be necessary if Sierra Vista would do the right thing and back off without a court order. Having a place to sleep at night should not hinge on petty distinctions in the law. 

A person’s home is her castle, even when it’s a trailer. 

Paul Avelar is managing attorney of the Institute for Justice Arizona Office in Tempe. Daryl James is an Institute for Justice writer in Arlington, Va. 
 

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One comment

  1. damn right! these zoning nazis get away with too much…
    low income people have been abused again and again… there’s some people who make the land look dirty and nasty and disgusting… and there’s some people who make it look the opposite.
    the first thing they need to recognize.. who owns the damn property is the person who gets to decide. out in the middle of the desert it shouldn’t matter.. these people are just doing whatever they feel like doing just to spite these people. it’s wrong, and they need not to get away with it.

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