Friday, August 25, 2006
Let’s switch to renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar power, many environmentalists advocate. But at the local level, the land use impacts of such power sources generate opposition from nearby residents.
Today’s wind turbines are colossal –- the most efficient turbines are up to 400 feet tall, or higher than the Statue of Liberty (with pedestal) and about the size of a 35-story building. Towns in rural New York State are rapidly passing laws to bar such turbines, asserting, of course, that they are incompatible with the quiet “character” of their communities.
I am sympathetic to the need for wind turbines, of course, and it would be easy to wag my finger yet again at this example of NIMBY. But if we welcome land use laws that would bar 30-story buildings in rural areas, why allow enormous wind turbines? One argument for permitting giant structures is, of course, that the turbines provide a valuable public service that might override residents’ concerns, as with any necessary but locally unwanted land use (LULU). Local blocking of such valuable projects highlights the need for some land use decisions to be made at a level higher than that of the town or county, so that the needs of an entire state, or even an entire nation, can be taken into account.
But what about the rural resident who wakes up one morning to find a set of colossal wind turbines towering over his or her property? If such turbines are truly a valuable public service, how about a system of compensation for the “wipeout”? -– an idea that can be used to ameliorate local opposition to a variety of LULUs and whose costs can be passed on the taxpayers who benefit from the land use.
Thursday, August 24, 2006
Yesterday I wrote about towns that abuse land use law to keep themselves largely residential and largely affluent. But then there’s Vernon, Cal., with only 91 permanent residents but dozens of industrial facilities that fill up most of the municipality. The local government has been “run like a fiefdom,” according to a state judge that decided an election lawsuit brought against newcomers who –- despite once being evicted from their new residence in an old building –- want to break up the cozy relationship between the city (which owns most of the residential houses in Vernon) and its leading family.
Wednesday, August 23, 2006
Which state holds the highest incidence of “exclusionary zoning” –- laws that prevent low-cost housing from being built? Remarkably, it’s New Jersey, according to a summary by Bruce Katz and Robert Puentes of the Brookings Institution of a forthcoming book. This is notable because, of course, New Jersey was supposed to be at the vanguard, by virtue of the Mount Laurel litigation, of the effort to require localities to take affirmative steps to ensure the provision of their fair share of low-cost housing! There are stories all over the place these days about the affordable housing crunch and questioning the practice of exclusionary zoning. Local defenders of such zoning counter that it’s in the best interests of the residents of the town to keep the town’s population down and its property taxes per capita high. This is no doubt true. But the point of the Mount Laurel decisions was that land use policies are not matters of concern only for the current residents. One town’s exclusion simply pushes the demand for low-cost housing elsewhere and raises the cost of housing for the less affluent across an entire area.
When will state governments finally realize these facts and rein in towns’ selfish laws? Repeat after me: Nothing that government does in domestic law is more harmful to the public welfare than exclusionary zoning.
Tuesday, August 22, 2006
The mountains and shores of the South Atlantic states are experiencing a development boom, as retirees and affluent second-home buyers look for alternatives to high-priced Florida. Perhaps no state is feeling the pressure as much as North Carolina. It used to be that most of the population was in the middle, while only poor mountain towns and fishing villages dotted the extremes. Now both coast and mountains are sprouting housing developments, perhaps faster than law can deal with them.
One concern is the future of natural landmarks, such as Chimney Rock of the western Carolina Blue Ridge. Many natural “attractions” of the East were once privately owned and operated for profit-making tourism. Chimney Rock still is, although the current owners are offering it for sale in the private market. Developers are interested. According to an AP story, the state, with help from the Nature Conservancy, tried to buy the famous rock outcropping and its surrounding forest, but could not match the asking price. The state is now considering whether to try again. This is the kind of issue that puts the public interest in preservation to the test: Do citizens love their natural treasures enough to pay for the cost of preserving them for future generations?
Monday, August 21, 2006
In our computerized age, it’s remarkable that something as simple as figuring out the height of a house can become a source of legal controversy. In Fairfax County, Virginia, the zoning authorities have cracked down on mansions that are too tall under county rules. Many homebuyers in the booming affluent suburb haven’t been able to move into their houses; those who already moved in are being allowed to stay. Remarkably, builders have had a different understanding than the county on how to measure the height; according to this news story, the county measures to the midpoint of a roof, while many builders average the height of various roofs (and today’s mansions of course must have multiple roof features). The lack of understanding was exacerbated by the fact that the county only conducts spot checks of houses and for years seemed less than vigilant in enforcing the height rule.
It’s extraordinary to me that simple rules such as the height rule aren’t explained by computerized diagrams for builders to understand, and that the builder is not required to submit a computerized image of the house as built, showing (at the builder’s expense) that the house meets the requirements. But then, I’m just a lawyer …
My favorite proposed solution to over-tall houses: One owner is planning to raise the grade of the land around his house in order to “decrease” its height! The lawyer in tells me that something is wrong here …
Sunday, August 20, 2006
Americans are used to thinking of themsleves as the world's leader in market innovation and computer technology. But the pressures of transportation congestion have pushed other nations, such as Asia's innovative Singapore, to develop effective systems for market-based incentives and technology for impact fees on auto transportation.