Friday, April 20, 2007
There is lore among tort layers about line-crossing auto accident cases on State Line Road, a major route that is literally astride the border of the two Kansas Citys –- one Missouri and one in Kansas. Which state’s law applies to an accident with a vehicle partially in Kansas and partially in Missouri? If this is a difficult decision, imagine trying to get interstate cooperation about a better public transportation system in the greater KC area. Funding and route-mapping has to be done in both states and involves many levels of government, as reported in the Kansas City Star. Among many complicating issues is that the Kansas side tends to be more suburban and often more affluent (and perhaps more skeptical of transit) than the Missouri side.
The states have already instituted a bi-state tax system, but the money can only be used for sports, arts, and cultural activities. (Take a guess which been in the greatest demand.) Another complication is the on-going battle between, on one hand, rail plans, often favored by visionaries (and voters), and, on the other hand, improved bus routes, often supported by those with more practical notions.
Thursday, April 19, 2007
In this week of soul-searching about our nation’s college students, here’s an interesting story from the neighborhood around Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. The city’s zoning board voted this week that a college fraternity must leave the neighborhood, even though it has been on the site for more than 30 years, much of which as a nonconforming use. (The house was vacated for a while as a number of code violations were addressed.)
What’s most interesting to me is that neighbors complained that the house was in effect a “nuisance” of loud parties and drunken students. The matter recalls the infamous U.S. Supreme Court decision of Village of Belle Terre v. Boraas, which I just discussed with my class. There, an exclusive town on Long Island, N.Y., zoned out group houses; SUNY-Stony Brook was nearby. In an oft-criticized decision, Justice William O. Douglas upheld the town’s decision. I discuss with my class whether the SUNY college students were the victims of “stereotyping” –- reading between the lines, the town probably didn’t want annoying student housing in their community.
Returning to the Baltimore example, is it so clear that it’s good policy to conclude that because some students have been drunken louts in the past, we can assume, through law, that fraternity students will be drunken louts in the future? Is this a kind of stereotyping that is acceptable?
Tuesday, April 17, 2007
Impact fees –- Are they a subtle and effective way for governments to shape and discourage harmful or costly development? Or are they a license for governments to abuse their power over private property owners? Or perhaps a little of both?
Two impact stories are in the news. First, the Arizona Daily Star reports on the growth of impact fees on new development in Tucson, one of America’s fastest growing cities. The city argues, with considerable force, that such fees are justified to help pay for additional city services that are generated by new development. But some property owners, including some commercial property owners, argue that Tucson’s high fees are helping push new development out of the city and into rural areas that don’t have such fees. But of course one of the theoretical arguments for impact fees is to encourage developers to “infill” in areas in which there is already infrastructure, and to avoid “sprawl.” But the Tucson practice seems to be encouraging the opposite! Once again, the ideas of land use law work best if done at a regional level, not locality by locality.
Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Times reports that Caltrans, the state’s road-construction agency, is increasingly seeking impact fees, and even suing to gather them, from developers whose projects would generate higher demand for highways. Some developers use a special word to refer to the state’s use of such fee … yes, “extortion,” the term famously quoted by Justice Scalia, writing for the Supreme Court in the 1994 Dolan case, about land use exactions.
A problem with the use of impact fees for California roads is that almost any new development would generate the need for more road construction and maintenance, whether it is a new project in Orange County that would overburden the jammed freeway system, or a new town in the Sierra foothills that would require building new roads fro scratch. But then again, the principle behind incentive-based rules is that law encourages parties, such as developers, to look for development that would generate the LEAST in new traffic. I suppose a downtown L.A. new urbanist project of dense housing, stores, and offices might support a successful argument that it would have the effect of REMOVING some cars from the highways, thus justifying the imposition of zero impact fees. But maybe an “impact award” from the government? …
Monday, April 16, 2007
Good news is rare, and good news about land use law is no exception. But USA Today published today an interesting story about the revival of Jersey City, N.J., just across the Hudson River from Manhattan. Once reliant on railroads and other “rust” businesses, Jersey City has long been considered a sad exemplar of the difficulties faced by working-class urban communities as the United States turns away from an industrial economy.
But Jersey City’s economy is on its way back up. A lot of factors have contributed to the rebirth, including a government with a reputation for avoiding corruption. Another obvious advantage is the fact that because it is so close to lower Manhattan, Jersey City enjoys a “spillover” of businesses looking for lower-cost office space and office workers looking for convenient apartments and condos. The growth is dense “smart growth,” of course, because of the population and space pressures so close to the big city. To this extent, it appears that Jersey City might be “gentrifying,” with all the potential benefits and drawbacks that this phenomenon implies.
One factor especially caught my attention in Jersey City’s revival. Because the city’s industrial economy collapsed so completely, much of its land, especially on the waterfront, was abandoned or otherwise not occupied. Accordingly, there were few residents to complain about the shape of new development, or businesses to complain about changes in the area or new competition. When there’s no one nearby to complain, a developer doesn’t have to worry much about NIMBY. It’s as if the area was such an extreme “brownfield” that it eventually enjoyed some of the advantages for new construction of an unoccupied “greenfield.”