July 14, 2006
The folly of formless "Open Space"
What’s the most overused and most meaningless term in our land use debates? I suggest the term “open space.” In nearly every argument, some side suggests that one alternative is preferrable because it would provide “open space.” But this term is meaningless unless we examine the details.
An “open space” of a privately controlled, two-acre plot of bluegrass? It might provide a permeable surface, but it would do nothing for public recreation, biodiversity, or habitat. An “open space” of piedmont grazed by cattle? It might allow for some vegetation, but would also be source of pollution and would never develop into a forest or carbon sink. An “open space” of a golf course? Well, this speaks for itself.
So why the continuing appeal of the term “open space” instead of more specificity about the supposed public benefits of a land use? I suggest that “open space” has appeal because it can be used in any instance to mask an argument driven largely by NIMBY, not truly by the public interest.
July 13, 2006
Helping grazing on public lands -- Does this keep the developer at bay?
The Bureau of Land Management has issued new final regulations that would, in part, make it more difficult for local BLM managers to impose ecologically based restrictions on grazing on the public lands. Environmentalists have long criticized such grazing, of course, arguing that the system provides a “welfare” subsidy for private ranchers to injure a public resource. Cattle trample arid-land plants and pollute creeks, among other harms.
Here are two comments. First, the NPR story quoted pro-ranching advocates, including a BLM official, who justified helping ranchers because efforts to remove ranching would “inexorably” lead to housing development of the grazed lands. What an extraordinary assertion! This appears to be a rather lame attempt to curry some favor with some environmentally minded citizens –- but only those who don’t really understand the extent of the grazing issue. As anyone familiar with BLM lands knows, these lands constitute nearly half of the arid U.S. West –- millions of acres of dry land and desert, only a tiny fraction of which are near the cites and towns in which there are current development pressures.
On the other side, those who call for cutting back grazing on the public lands ignore the fact that the policy of keeping within federal ownership much of the West inevitably leads to controversial issues of public management and less-than-optimal use by ranchers who, in effect, rent instead of own. When former Interior Secretary James Watt suggested in the ‘80s selling off some of these lands, he was chastised by environmentalists. But some judicious selling of some BLM lands to ranchers who then would have an incentive to steward their own land is an idea worth thinking about again.
July 10, 2006
The appeal and limits of "workforce housing" ...
Just as the great moderation of American politics requires everyone to speak only of helping "working families" -- no one except far leftists actually speak of helping the "poor" anymore -- the effort to foster affordable housing is being refocused on laws to provide "workforce housing" -- that is, housing for the essential public workforce of teachers, firefighters, police officers, etc., that every locality needs. It appears to be politically unmarketable to argue that laws such as minimum lot sizes and zoning against apartments unfairly hurt lower income people, in general, looking for housing: How would aiding such people as a group help the current homeowners who dominate the vote in the local government? But market the problem as one of "We need to house the local police" and maybe affordable housing advocates will get some sympathy, because this type of housing might actually aid the existing homeowners who need their houses protected.
One of the most successful and effective ways to facilitate low-cost housing is laws to require a housing developer to provide a certain percentage of less-expensive housing as a condition for a permit to build. Such rules give the developer -- who needs to get the permit -- an incentive to build the low-cost housing quickly and efficiently. This sort of requirement has been used for decades in big Montgomery County, Md., which, in part because of the rule, has become far more diverse racially and economically than it was 30 years ago.
Here's a story about developers getting approvals just before a new set-aside rule goes into effect in Palm Beach County, Florida. What does the county consider affordable housing? Houses in the range of $164,000 and $304,000. This might be affordable for a firefighter, but not a janitor or store clerk, of course.