Richmond, Virginia, is considering a new way to crack down on fraud in existing stores: make it harder to open new ones.
Currently, Richmond’s zoning code treats convenience stores no differently than grocery stores. It allows them to open without special permission or public hearing in a long list of commercial areas. But two separate shootings at a convenience store this year have council members opposed to this liberal rule.
On Monday, the city council approved a resolution announcing that stores should be subject to more restrictions than grocery stores, convenience stores, and other food vendors. It also instructs city staff to learn how to modify the local code to make it happen.
The decision suggests that Richmond give the city’s planning authority the power to create special “built-up covered retail” districts where take-out and take-out would be allowed.
Another idea that has been floated in the reform is to make it easier for stores to get operating permits to open. This gives the city council the power to approve or reject proposals for new stores. Aspiring store owners, however, would have to get their plans reviewed by multiple city agencies and escape the gauntlet of public hearings.
Existing stores would not be forced to close. But if the change of location makes the shops certified for “inconsistent” use, they will face many more regulatory hoops and restrictions if they try to expand their business.
William Pelfrey, a Virginia Commonwealth University law professor who was interviewed by local news outlet WTVR, questioned the effectiveness of banning new stores as a way to fight crime.
“There will be only one number of criminals here,” he told the station. “If you reduce the number of convenience stores from 280 to 250, that’s a reduction, but there are still people who will walk another block, run two more blocks to knock on a store.”
Pelfrey recommends that stores take more crime-fighting measures such as better lighting and bank tellers who can alert the police to problems.
The local media also note that law makers already have the power to declare that every shop is a “criminal blight” and they want it to change to prevent crime.
It may not be a libertarian law, but it focuses government efforts to fight crime on individual crime-prone areas instead of regulating an entire class of businesses.
This leads to a common problem with site monitoring: There are many people who would like to limit harmful and negative external events to nearby buildings or areas where they live. In general, markets do a good job of correcting these externalities. A slaughterhouse does not pay high prices for land to be located in a residential area. Or a junkyard.
Where there are perceived gaps, lawmakers are eager to pass laws that set certain limits on noise or odors, and cities and counties then enforce those laws against individual violators.
That approach can still lead to heavy-handed pressure. However, it is better than local laws that draw “contradictory lines” that prohibit a large class of legal businesses, which, in the absence of local restrictions, build where needed and stay open only when they have people to sell.
In Richmond’s case, zoning may seem to be making neighborhoods worse by keeping convenience stores away from areas where they would thrive.
The advantage of crime is that it is already legal. Richmond officials should focus on enforcing existing laws rather than imposing restrictions on store owners.