Wednesday, April 30, 2008
What’s happening to food and how has law contributed to the shock? The Washington Post printed a readable primer on the complex topic this week; the report today concerns the massive increase in corn farming over the past few years, spurred in part by laws requiring the use of ethanol. These changes are having a profound effect on the grain belt. Acreage devoted to corn in Iowa, the biggest corn state, rose by more than a third over the past 20 years; in Kansas, traditionally a wheat state, corn acreage more than doubled over that time. Yesterday, the Post reported on the fall in wheat production, which raises the price of bread.
Meanwhile, Congress continues to debate an enormous farm bill, which will shape farm and rural land use for years to come. While high farm prices haven’t discouraged Congress from continuing a host of farm payment programs, there is an effort afoot to shift some of the payments away from farmers and toward consumers.
Monday, April 28, 2008
It's settled law that demolition or alteration of buildings can be restricted by law simply because something historic happened there. But can, and should, historic preservation laws extend to restricting the "use" of a building, when no significant change to the architecture takes place?
Here are two vignettes. In Berlin, Germany, voters this weekend failed to cast ballots in sufficient numbers to trump a decision of the regional government to close old Tempelhof airport, built in Nazi Germany but made famous during the postwar airlift, when food and supplies kept West Berlin going, in spite of a Soviet blockade. (German law holds the intelligent nuance of not allowing the results of a referendum to count if not enough people care to vote.) The terminal building won't be torn down -- it's protected by law -- but it probably won't be used as an airport any longer. By today's standards, it's far too close to downtown, among other drawbacks.
Meanwhile, in the Bronx, N.Y., local activists are trying to preserve the status as low-cost housing of 1520 Sedgwick Ave., where, many say, hip hop music was invented by DJ Kool Herc back in the early 1970s. Some proposals would turn the building into higher-priced housing.
It's one thing for government to preserve historic buildings from defacement or demolition. It's also rather uncontroversial to put in place historic plaques and conduct tours. But should land use law impose restrictions on the use of a building, simply to maintain its historic use, in the face of market pressures for other uses?
Wednesday, April 23, 2008
Who needs zoning in a metro area that has been an exemplar of sprawl, and where land uses have been separated well by covenants and culture? These are some of the reasons why Houston has resisted thorough zoning and land use laws for so long. But things may be changing, as explained in this recent article from the Houston Chronicle. One reason that the topic is gaining more traction: the rise of new dense construction plans in a city traditionally famous for its low density.
Houston’s decisions will be fascinating politics and law, because the adoption of new land use laws could go in various directions: traditional, anti-density laws to help affluent homeowners; laws favoring “smart” density; laws that give local autonomy; and an infinity of variants.
To me, the outcome of this debate in Houston and elsewhere is more fascinating, and more important for the future of the typical American, than the squabbling of presidential candidates about who is more in touch with the average Joe and Juanita. But that’s just me ….
Monday, April 21, 2008
Is the idea of density really causing significant changes in land use law and practice in the United States? One example of a possible missed opportunity has been the rapid development of Homestead, Florida, south of Miami. As much as any metro area of the country, greater Miami holds nearly impenetrable boundaries of sea and enormous protected areas (the Everglades). One of the last undeveloped locations has been around Homestead, which was until very recently surrounded largely by farms. But population pressures have led to a rapid build up; by some estimates, Homestead grew faster than any other city in the nation of at least 50,000 people since 2000. But most of this development has been in the form of single-family houses –- often small houses, to be sure –- but many more single-family houses than multi-family units. If any place called for a change in thinking, and greater density, it would be Homestead …
But maybe things are changing. NPR reported today that high gas prices, combined with a downturn in the economy, is propping up the prices of houses in close-in neighborhoods in many metro areas, especially those areas close to public transportation. If this trend continues, we may finally see greater pressure for truly dense in-fill in old American cities.
Wednesday, April 16, 2008
Will Americans accept living above stores? A generation ago, the answer probably would have been a resounding “No!” in a nation suckled on the notion of separation of commerce and residences. A few optimists might have offered: But what about New York or Paris, where millionaires live above stores? Today, the notion of mixing land uses is downright acceptable. Even in Tampa, Florida, near me, which is one of the world’s least dense cities, condos have been sold atop stores for the affluent.
But old shibboleths die hard. From Dallas, Texas (motto: “Think large. Live big” -– not exactly the idea behind density!) comes a fascinating story about the lack of success of mixed use-complexes. According to the Dallas Morning News, the problem is not renting residences, but renting for retail; many of the stores have proven difficult to rent. The theme of the story is that density-loving governments push mixed-used plans, even in places where retail probably won’t succeed. Or perhaps the residents of the mixed-use developments simply can’t accept the idea of visiting a store without getting in their cars …
Tuesday, April 15, 2008
“Density” captures the essence of most plans to foster “smarter” growth and change the American tradition of sprawling land use law. But the seemingly simple idea of allowing –- or maybe even encouraging –- denser development often runs into opposition in a nation that has been reared on thinking that low density is the ideal. This week, I write about a variety of stories that reveal the growing pains of density.
Los Angeles is of course the quintessential low-density metro area –- built in large part after the introduction of the automobile, and spread out by virtue of its revolutionary freeway system. But with more than 4 million people now in the city, more than 15 million within 50 miles of downtown, and new sprawl blocked by ocean mountain, and desert, Los Angeles is looking for ways to increase density.
But density naturally has its opponents in Los Angeles. One of the most vocal is Zev Yaroslavsky, a County Commissioner and former City Council member, who recently wrote an anti-density opinion column for the L.A. Times. His guiding principle? Density should not be allowed to interfere with the “character” of a residential community.
Monday, April 14, 2008
Can a town have too much affordable housing? May local governments think so, as they try to avoid the presumed tax and other unwelcome consequences of allowing low-income residents into their jurisdiction. So it was in Canton, Mass., an affluent exurb south of Boston, which in 2003 denied an application by a developer to build rental units and low-cost single-family homes. Under Massachusetts law, however, a locality must devote 10 percent of its total housing units to low or moderate cost housing. An aggrieved developer may appeal to a state Housing Appeals Committee. Although Canton did not meet its statutory obligation at the time of the denial, it later claimed to do by allowing another affordable housing project. Did this later action in effect moot its legal obligation to the earlier applicant?
No, said the state Housing Appeals Committee, relying on a regulation which fixes a town’s obligations as of the date of a denial of a permit application. Why did the town say it didn’t want more low-cost housing? Increased traffic, of course! The Housing Committee called this an insufficient reason for the town not to fulfill its duty. Fighting all the way –- as so many localities, do –- Canton appealed to the Massachusetts courts and won in the Superior Court, which found that the housing regulation “skewed … the delicate balance” of the law too far in favor of developers of low-cost housing.
But the developer, Canton Property Holding, LLC, and the state Housing Committee prevailed on appeal to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. In a decision handed down last Friday, the high court held that the Committee’s rule for determining the date for assessing a town’s compliance was a rational one, and that courts must to defer to rational agency regulations. The Supreme Judicial Court did not find that more low-cost housing would be too much. (The court’s decision is Zoning Board of Appeals of Canton v. Housing Appeals Committee, Mass. Supreme Judicial Ct., No. SJC-10057, April 11, 2008.)
As housing prices continue to either stagnate or fall across the nation, many localities will no doubt fight with even greater tenacity their obligations to foster low-cost housing.
Wednesday, April 9, 2008
With the dollar plummeting and the reputation of the United States at a low point throughout much of the world, in which ways is the United States still the leader in the world economy? One way is our agriculture –- even if nobody wants to buy our cars anymore, everyone wants to buy the bounty of the United States’ farmland. With the boom in the economies of nations such as China and India, combined with the great demand for biofuels in an age of high gasoline prices, America’s crops are selling at record levels.
One result of this is a great incentive to turn more rural land into producing crops. The New York Times today printed a story about the shift of much farmland out of the federal government’s “Conservation Reserve Program,” which pays some farmers not to grow on certain environmentally sensitive land. With high crop prices, it now pays more to farm much of these lands.
Perhaps even more troubling for the environment is the push to turn forests into crops for biofuels. In a recent edition of Time, Michael Grunwald argued that the biofuel boom is turning into one of the biggest environmental disasters in the world, in large part by encouraging more rapid destruction of rainforests, which destruction spews carbon into the air and drives up the price of corn for the poor.
I won’t look at my soyburger or corn tortilla the same way again …