Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Maximum lot sizes and required high density: An idea whose time has come ….

   Across the nation, jurisdictions have adopted minimum lot size laws to try to avoid unwanted development and suburban sprawl.  Such laws are often touted as preserving farmland and maintaining “open space.”  In practice, rules such as five-acre minimums may not keep land as farms; they do, however, keep residential density low.  Other effects of such laws are to push the pressure for development elsewhere (sometimes even further out) and to exclude families of moderate incomes.  Minimum lot sizes are today perhaps the most notorious element of exclusionary zoning.

   If governments are truly serious about “smart growth” and battling land-gobbling sprawl, here is an idea whose time has come:  MAXIMUM lot sizes that require HIGH density. 

   Such laws could be imposed in certain sectors that are relatively favored for new growth and that hold features such as access to public transportation, freeways, existing schools, and infrastructure.  Such mandated high density would encourage the construction of “smart growth” housing in the suburbs.

Density    Such rules, of which there are a few extant examples (especially in Oregon), should be constitutional in most places.  After all, if it is legally acceptable to depress the value of property by telling the landowner that it can only allow a small number of lots, it should be acceptable to tell the owner that it must allow a large number of lots when the land is developed.

   Why would a locality adopt such a rule, which might guarantee an influx of new residents, many of whom would not be affluent five-acre types?  One reason would be to encourage multi-family and other affordable housing.  Another reason would be to relieve development pressures from other sectors (environmentally sensitive regions or areas with little infrastructure, for example).  It would also prove that the jurisdiction is serious about “smart growth,” rather than merely interested in parochial exclusion.  As with other efforts to combat exclusionary zoning, it may be desirable for state governments to impose such high-density requirements on localities.

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