November 17, 2006
The diseased roots of modern land use law ... Now in a bestseller near you! …
Imagine the city in 1850: A dense nest of people living in unsanitary conditions, in which disease, filth, and fire spread quickly. The media of late 2006 is buzzing over a new history book by Steven Johnson, “The Ghost Map,” which tells the story of the recognition in the 1850s that cholera and other diseases are spread by contagion. (Here's the review in the L.A. Times.) This discovery helped spur (in a somewhat indirect manner, of course) the land-use-segregation ideas of zoning and the dominance of risk-avoidance in much of today’s land use law.
November 16, 2006
Public land to private in Nevada ...
NPR reported this morning about an obscure federal law that requires that funds received from public land sold around Las Vegas be spent on local projects, mostly concerning other public lands in the state. Nevada politicians, including soon-to-be- Senate-majority-leader Harry Reid, of course have supported the law.
Unlike some advocates of public ownership, I argue that it makes sense for the federal government to sell off some of the public lands in a state such as Nevada, in which Uncle Sam controls more than 80 of the land, and in which there is today high demand for private ownership. But giving the money only to local interests provides an incentive as dangerous, and as susceptible to abuse, as that in Kelo-type eminent domain for private use.
November 15, 2006
Remove parking requirements for residential units … before commercial property …
Concern about auto traffic has played a greater role, perhaps, than any other factor in pushing modern land use law to restrict and shape new construction. For both commercial and residential building, for example, the developer often is required to provide for a certain amount of parking. Without such parking requirements, government fears, people would park in the surrounding area, annoying neighbors and placing intolerable demands on a limited number of spots. One result of these laws in that parking is now a dominant urban land use, both in suburbs and cities.
But there is a move to soften the nation’s mandatory parking laws, especially in connection with multifamily housing in dense neighborhoods. There are many benefits to a legal change. First, it dovetails with efforts to encourage public transportation. Second, fewer parking spaces in cities mean more space for housing, including low-cost housing. Third, it would lower the cost of housing for those who can do without a parking space. And fourth, it is a free market approach: parking would be provided in response to free market demand (like most other good s and services), instead of what government thinks is best. (San Francisco is going further and requiring that condo sellers “unbundle” parking spaces from the sale of new units in certain areas.)
But what about the concerns of annoying the neighbors? Here, I suggest a difference between commercial and residential property. When visiting a store, drivers are more likely to engage in anti-social parking behavior: blocking driveways, taking reserved spots, and double-parking. After all, the driver often thinks, “I’ll only be here for a few minutes” and “I’m not going to repeat this practice tomorrow” (maybe). With residential parking, however, the resident driver knows that he or she will have to repeat the parking practice day after day, and that egregious practices are more likely to be caught. As a result, the residential driver is likely to behave more socially –- such as by paying for secure off-site parking (as thousands of Manhattanites do). If my theory is correct, law might do well by removing parking requirements for residential property before doing so for commercial property.
November 14, 2006
Campaign signs: Free speech, nuisance, or both?
Isn’t the display of a campaign sign a quintessential example of free speech, protected by the First Amendment? You’d never know it from the breadth of American local laws regulating campaign signs and their removal. In the city of Tucson, for example, rules limit political signs in residential areas to six square feet, require that they be “kept in a presentable and safe condition,” and demand that they be removed within 15 days after a general election. Across the nation, local governments and private citizens are taking special pains to remove signs, now that the election is over. Enforcement of conformity is always popular in today’s suburban America.
In one sense, political signs are a quaint throwback to a simpler world. They are perhaps the “lowest tech” form of widespread communication in our society. They are also almost content-free: Most signs consist of simply a blue and white background (red is still associated with socialism, even in this area of “red/blue” discourse) and the name of the candidate, often without party affiliation. As such, the “speech” involved is hardly more complex than a grunt. But in this era of advertising-is-everything, advocates continue to believe that simple repetition of a name can help a candidate in the balloting.
But if political signs are indeed free speech (see City of Ladue v. Gilleo, 312 U.S. 43 (1994) (striking down a prohibition against signs in residential neighborhoods)), on what basis are cities such as Tucson justified in demanding that signs be removed within 15 days? Is a possible justification that, after the election, the law can presumptively assume that keeping the sign up is not an expression of a political opinion, but rather simply an expression of sloth?
November 13, 2006
Sensible land use plans (of hoops and charity) in Seattle ...
What types of private land uses should government subsidize? Last week, I suggested that sports stadiums, the most famous type of subsidy, don’t make sense for affluent cities with a diversified economy. A quintessential example is found in Seattle, where the voters last week rejected a proposal that would have, in effect, provided a land use subsidy for the SuperSonics pro basketball team. (As a result, the team may move to Oklahoma City.) At about the same time, the city approved a complex land use plan for a new 1-million-square-feet headquarters for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation -- the organization that might do more good for the world than any other, over the next couple of decades. According to the Post-Intelligencer, the city is arranging for the relocation of a recreation park on the land; the foundation will pay for transportation improvements (including support of carpooling and public transit) to help assuage traffic congestion. The only significant city payout would be for a parking garage that the city will eventually gain the title to. One city seems to have its priorities and its negotiating acumen working well.