Thursday, October 18, 2007
Imagine if the government held a public vote on many issues pitting the supposed public interest against one party’s putative freedom. You want to live far from work and emit a lot of greenhouse gases during your commute? Let the town vote. You want to send your kid to private school, thus exacerbating racial segregation in the community? Let’s vote. You want to change your factory’s production line to robots, thus saving money but putting people out of work? Let’s vote.
If these sound preposterous, consider that referenda are becoming a more common method for deciding land use questions. Because government’s land use decisions are supposed to be based on the “public interest,” and because public referenda seem to embody democracy at its purest, the courts have largely approved local governments’ decisions to punt … er, rather, to refer to the people … the decision whether to approve a land use plan. (For example, City of Eastlake v. Forest City Enterprises, Inc., 426 U.S. 668 (1976)).
But the public is not very good at considering the argument of private property rights and interests, especially when the typical citizen has little interest (in both meanings of the word), other than to decrease traffic. I humbly suggest that a governmental body, such as planning or zoning agency, which has the time and inclination to consider both sides of an issue, with the approval of elected representatives, is the best body to make land use decisions. (And yes, I recognize the greater likelihood that such a small governmental body will come under the sway of wealthy developers.) Sometimes representative government is better than direct democracy.
Yet many localities are considering more public referenda in land use decisions. In Sarasota County, Florida, a forthcoming referendum would require a 4-1 supermajority of county commissioners to approve changes in the comprehensive plan to increase density. A “yes” vote would lend support to the idea that most citizens aren’t opposed to growth per se, they just don’t want it near them …