Friday, October 6, 2006
Which is the most powerful branch of government? In many cases, the answer is the “fourth branch” of government –- administrative agencies. With the executive and legislature busy on “hot-button” topics and re-election worries, agencies turn policy into rules that affect land use on an every-day basis, even though few people pay attention to the details.
In the case of the Bush administration’s land management decisions, the Washington Post perceives that agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the NOAA Fisheries Service are choosing not to implement many environmental protection laws, and that federal judges are reacting strongly to the perceived neglect. The power of citizens to sue over government’s environmental and land use errors is a critical component of our federal laws; without them, few people, including the media, would notice.
Thursday, October 5, 2006
Did General Motors kill off America’s city streetcars? According to PBS’s “History Detectives” episode that was broadcast last night (admittedly not the most scholarly source!), which focused on the demise of Cleveland’s once-extensive trolley lines, GM’s primary effort in the ’40s and ‘50s was in buying up already-troubled private streetcar companies and turning them to buses –- GM buses, of course.
If this is the extent of GM’s role, blame for the demise of urban public transportation should be laid equally in the lap of city governments, which failed at the time to appreciate that more public funding would be needed to support public transportation in the auto age (remember that even New York’s subway lines were originally built and run for decades largely as private ventures). The PBS show also expressed a bias in favor “clean” streetcars over “smelly" buses. But wasn’t there a benefit in the mobility and speed of the city bus over the slow and unwieldy streetcar?
Wednesday, October 4, 2006
As my plane approached Chicago’s urban Midway Airport this weekend, we flew low over a handful of playgrounds in the moderate-income neighborhoods. The baseball fields seemed unused, while the football fields had been overlain (though I doubt any land use planners were involved!) with soccer fields, not always in perfect rectangles. I see this phenomenon all over –- city planners and recreation departments have failed to keep up with the times and provide for an adequate number of soccer fields, which are in heavy demand today. This example of a changing America might also cause us to rethink land use laws concerning multi-family housing and public transportation needs. (It might also give the United States, which failed to win this year’s World Baseball Classic, hope for the 2014 soccer World Cup ….)
Tuesday, October 3, 2006
Traditional law, which views land use as a matter of only “local” concern, creates some perverse effects in our modern and mobile age. The city of Stafford, Texas, an exurb of Houston, is becoming alarmed because it has too much of one kind of land use: churches. There are more than 50 places of worship in the city of less than 20,000; most of the worshipers –- and there are Buddhist temples and Hindu centers as well as Christian churches –- come from outside of Stafford. Dependent on sales taxes and business taxes, Stafford faces a budget crisis because so much of its land is used by non-revenue-raising religious establishments.
What’s the solution to this dilemma? A new law that tries to cut back on the number of churches? Using eminent domain to condemn some houses of worship? None of these legal measures makes much sense, and all of them risk conflict with the first amendment’s right to exercise religion freely. The only long-term solution to Stafford’s problem –- or similar dilemmas of cities with too many homeless people, or not enough wealthy business taxpayers -– is for state governments to enact laws requiring revenue-sharing within metro areas, or other forms of metropolitan government. Radical? Perhaps, but it is even more troublesome to stick to the old-fashioned view (plainly erroneous in the case of Stafford’s religious commuters) that ones city’s land use laws affect that city only.