Lack of Zoning Hampers Redevelopment and Public Safety

By Wynfred Russell

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
September 4, 2013



A few months ago, I stopped at a newly opened, ultra-modern western-style grocery store near the ELWA junction in Paynesville. Upon entering the bard-wired, fenced supermarket, one thing became painfully conspicuous, like most major facilities (private and public) in Liberia, a severe shortage of adequate parking slots for customers.

I met the owner at the front entrance and asked: “Why would you build such a shining nice facility and without adequate parking spaces?” He replied, “Oh, no, we have more parking in the back of the building, my friend.”

So, I followed up: “How many additional stalls do you have?” He turned to his partner, speaking in what sounded like his native Indian Hindi language, then looked me straight in the eyes, grinned, and responded: “We have about 25 is a process, you know.”

“Really? Just 25 for this building,” I asked, while raising my voice in obvious frustration.

Twenty-five parking spots for a supermarket approximately 50,000-square-foot are clearly incommensurate with the supermarket traffic flow. The question is, who approved the building plan for this and all of the structures springing up all over the country? Who in government is ensuring that all buildings and structures erected meet national and international building code requirements?

As you go around Monrovia and its sprawling suburbs, buildings are being constructed in what seem like an ad hoc, everything-goes fashion, with little or no adherence to building codes or zoning ordinance.

In parts of central Monrovia, it has been reported in the local press that some residents have even built over water and sewage lines, causing many to rupture. This has resulted in drinking water contamination, pollution, and massive spillage of human wastes.

The ubiquity of market stands, “drinking spots,” cook shops, makeshift structures, and car repair shops in Monrovia are more than an irritating eye-soul. If not arrested immediately, they would pose significant public health and public safety problems.  The issue of access for fire trucks, ambulances, or law enforcement authorities trying to respond to an emergency becomes paramount.

Like most things in Liberia, there are beautifully written laws, policies, and plans on the books, but the implementation, enforcement, and the respect for those laws have fallen dismally below any acceptable civilized norm. It is sadly true even for this new generation of leaders and policymakers, an overwhelming majority of whom have lived, studied, or worked in places with strong zoning principles.

But, what are zoning laws? Zoning laws or ordinances dictate how owners may or may not use their property.  For instance, a typical zoning law might dictate that properties in a given area may be used for single-family residences but not for multi-family residences, or for multi-family residences but not for retail establishments, or for markets or shops but not for manufacturing.  The government may allow mixed uses, but should mandate such matters as landscaping, architectural style, fence height, sidewalk setbacks, and signage.

Under normal zoning laws, if a business or individual wants to purchase land from a willing seller, it is free to do so, but if the land is zoned “residential,” the business or individual may not legally build a store or repair shop there. Likewise, a homeowner is not free to convert his or her home to a clinic or an entertainment hangout, if it is zoned for “single-family” homes.

However, in Monrovia today, these laws are being blatantly and openly violated without any consequences to the violators. “For a variety of factors including, political, social, financial, and other reasons, the opening of alleys that started a few years ago has stopped. It must continue. Some streets are still blocked and needs to be opened.” This is a matter of safety!

There is an open-air market, a garage, a school, and a retail store all located a few blocks from the President’s residence, on the southside of Tubman Blvd near the Old Road Junction. You cannot and should not have all those entities in the same zoning block. Who approved those constructions? Are they in compliance with zoning regulations? Property owners who violate zoning laws should be subjected to fines, jail sentences, and, in some cases, government seizure of their property.

Monrovia is one of the only capital cities with a population greater than one million that has not imposed strict zoning laws on its residents. Many Monrovians or Liberians, for that matter, see the relative failure to enforce zoning laws as a badge of honor. Whereas, other major international cities subscribe to a collectivist notion that the government or the “community” has a right to dictate how an owner may or may not use his or her property. Liberians have, by and large, steadfastly disrespected all zoning codes: building in alleyways, destroying utility lines, compromising drainage systems, undermining paved roads, and erecting makeshift structures against the public good.

Monrovia has, to date, avoided a comprehensive, full-fledged zoning plan, though, over the past two years, the city has gradually enacted measures such as billboard restrictions, “clean-up day,” painting ordinances, and other controls—measures that, I believe, is woefully inadequate. In other words, Monrovia, the nation’s capital and most populous city, has a serious zoning problem!

How do we fix this? First, we need to understand the boundaries of the city. I have received four different answers. Second, we need to know which ministry or government entity has jurisdiction over enforcing building codes and zoning laws. What is the role of cities? The role of the Ministry of Public Works needs to be clarified in this effort. MPW should modernize existing zoning and building policies and leave them up to municipalities and communities around the country to implement and enforce, with local variation or sensibility. Third, the current 1950-era zoning laws should be updated urgently. The National Zoning Council must be given autonomy and the various blocks properly demarcated to ensure decentralization, better land use planning and management.

The onus is on the MCC to act with fairness and good will. The city must be developed to improve the economy and create jobs. Otherwise, pockets of Monrovia will continue to be mired in poverty. The city's challenge is to balance economic development with attention to the poor.

Additionally, there needs to be a gradual but urgent shift toward more—and more restrictive—land-use regulations. Over the last two months, I have spoken to residents in Brewerville, Caldwell, Monrovia, Paynesville, and emerging communities like Marshall, Duazon (along the Robertsfield highway) and the 72nd neighborhood, and many of them favor “creating a general plan to guide their community’s future 'smart growth' and development.”

Monrovia and its cluster of rapidly growing cities and communities should implement zoning piecemeal to allow skeptical residents to slowly appreciate the benefits. Monrovia’s lack of proper land use planning is a problem that requires immediate attention.

With streets pavement and upgrade, and road and bridge construction going on in Monrovia and across the country, implementing and enforcing land use, zoning, and building standards are development virtues that should be welcomed, embraced and expanded. To not do anything now will be a missed opportunity of monumental proportions and will affect redevelopment efforts.

About the author: Wynfred Russell is a two-term planning commissioner for the city of Brooklyn Park and a member of the community advisory council of the Metropolitan Council, a regional planning body that operates a network of bus and rail transitways in Minnesota. Contact him at:

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