Thursday, December 7, 2006
One result of the success of “progressive” politicians across the nation this year is likely to be a renewed vigor to pass laws that attempt to curb “sprawl.” Outside Washington, D.C., the outer suburbs of Loudoun County, Va. (photo at left), and Prince William County, Va., and the inner suburb of Montgomery County, Md., are in the process of imposing tough new moratoria on housing developments. While advocates hope that the efforts will preserve “open space” and help the counties provide services, some other results are also bound to occur: (1) the decreased supply of new housing will keep up the extraordinarily high housing prices in Washington suburbs, and (2) development pressure (and demand) will move to even further-out suburbs.
Wednesday, December 6, 2006
How should the law of “nuisance” respond to modern times? If one creates excessive noise, smells, or other annoyances that cross property boundaries, neighbors have a chance of convincing a court that the conduct is a “legal nuisance” that justifies either an injunction or money damages. Should more types of disturbing actions be considered nuisances? When the annoyance may bother public property –- or perhaps simply bother those trying to enjoy public property –- should the law be even tougher?
From south-central Pennsylvania comes a controversy about an application to open a gambling casino within a couple of miles of the Gettysburg battlefields, much of which are on a National Military Park. Should the supposed inappropriateness of a casino near America’s bloodiest battlefield be a ground for barring the casino in some manner?
Two past controversies jump to mind: First, In Minnesota v. Block, 660 F.2d 1240 (8th Cir. 1982), a U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the federal government’s authority to ban motorboat use on state-owned property that was near federally owned property in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area, because the law permissibly “protected” the federal property (designed for canoe travel) from noise “interference” that came from off federal property. Less successful was an effort to stop construction of large private buildings in Arlington, Va., that in effect “overshadow” the National Mall, when seen from places such as the west Capitol porch.
Should or could the Pennsylvania authorities deny the permit because of the psychological or social effect of a casino near the battlefields? Could or should the federal government attempt to control such a local land use because of its “effects” (broadly defined) on federal land? Could federal or state courts enjoin such as casino as a common-law social “nuisance”?
Tuesday, December 5, 2006
One would think that there would be advantages to addressing homeless and affordable housing in a paradise, such as Hawaii. Architecture in the 50th state can almost dispense with walls, because of the mild climate. But housing for the poor has always been more about difficulties of economics, law, and social politics than it has been about construction.
On the west shore of Oahu, for example, about 1000 people are now living tents on the beach near Waianae, according to a story today in the New York Times. Most residents of Waianae are “native Hawaiians,” who are the least affluent ethnic group in the state. As rents have priced out some residents, as in many popular places in the country, some low-income Hawaiians have found a tent on the beach to be the best alternative. (See also today a story about an activist-created shantytown in Miami.) Without cold weather or heavy rains (west Oahu is very dry), tent housing is not as unpleasant as it would be elsewhere. In fact, many Sunbelt cities are experiencing booms in homeless populations.
Couldn’t some of the incentives to life on the street or beach in a place such as Hawaii be used to advantage by government? Although publicly built housing is disfavored today, for good reasons, in favor of government-supported housing payments, there are a number of advantages to having government more directly involved in housing construction. Instead of trying to swim upstream by providing monetary assistance that may not be able to keep pace with rising housing costs, government should also consider subsidizing housing of the kind not seen much in the past 50 years –- simply built rooms, without amenities and with limited private access to electricity and plumbing. While such rock-bottom housing would not meet modern building codes, it might clearly be better -– for residents and for the public -– than life in a beach tent. Such housing probably wouldn’t work in the violent slums of St. Louis or Los Angeles, but it might help in places such as Waianae.
Monday, December 4, 2006
If one wants to see the future of America –- or at least one conception of it, for better or worse –- one should visit Pahrump, Nevada, the appropriately named town northwest of Las Vegas, which is being transformed from a dusty outpost to a booming exurb. When I last drove through Pahrump, it seemed one colossal construction site of strip malls, endless asphalt parking lots, sprawling housing plots, and six-lane highways seemingly in the middle of nowhere. While many critics and academicians see a “return to the city” as America’s future, I suspect that it’s even money that our future will more often look like Pahrump.
And what do the citizens of Pahrump want? The town recently passed an "English Language and Patriot Reaffirmation Ordinance" that, among other things, makes it unlawful to display a foreign flag by itself, even on private property. Some estimate that about 15 percent of Pahrump’s residents are Latinos. Although the ordinance was watered down at the last minute to exclude some of the more egregious provisions, apparently some believe that it prohibits the speaking of Spanish in public places. (It doesn’t quite do that.)
Although I think that the creation of a bi-lingual or multi-lingual society would be a divisive thing for America, laws such as those of Pahrump are still very disturbing. (One can find plenty of similar examples.) Does the isolating, sprawling land use of such exurbs encourage distrust, or do people who distrust tend to move to such exurbs?