Friday, May 23, 2008
The Libertarian Party is holding its presidential convention this weekend in Denver. This year, some expect that the libertarian message of “get government off our backs” might appeal to a large enough number of conservatives to affect the election. In this blog, I often write from a viewpoint that is skeptical of land use regulatory solutions to solve community problems. But when one reads stories such as those today about the apparently shoddy construction that lead to the collapse of schools (while government building stand) in Sichuan Province, China, count me out of the libertarian agenda. Skepticism of land use laws does not mean libertarianism. It means, rather, that we must think closely before accepting claims of quick governmental solutions. But for some kinds of land use laws, including building safety codes, I am very happy that government regulates the “liberty” of my fellow Americans.
Thursday, May 22, 2008
Suburban sprawl usually conjures up images of massive exurbs outside a big (or formerly big) city. But even smaller American cities have experienced residents leaving the central town for planned subdivisions with big houses, winding streets, and “choke” points at community exits clogged with SUVs and pickups. One method of tweaking land use law to improve traffic flow and cut mileage is to discourage the creation of new cul-de-sac developments. Long popular with suburbanites, dead-end streets (to use the older and less fashionable name) are a classic example of a land use that benefits the on-site residents but works to the detriment of others in the community. Even cities such as Fayetteville, Arkansas, perceive the problem of suburban cul-de-sacs to be significant enough to consider a new policy of discouraging their construction in most locations. The Northwest Arkansas Times quotes a city planner as suggesting that the change would improve traffic flow and might even encourage some Fayettevillers to get out of their cars and walk to buy their gallons of milk. Even the craziest dreams start will a single step …
Wednesday, May 21, 2008
How is a liquefied natural gas terminal like a low-cost housing project? Both are LULUs -– locally unwanted land uses. But both are also necessary for the wider community –- the metro area (at least) in the case of the housing project, and the nation, in the case of the LNG terminal. And sometimes it takes the courts to vindicate the greater public interest over local desires. This is my assessment of the decision this week of a federal appellate court that Maryland authorities could not use their coastal management law to stop an LNG terminal from being built outside Baltimore. (The case is AES Sparrow Point LNG, LLC v. Smith (U.S. Ct. App. 4th Cir. May 19, 2008)).
There was once a time in which Maryland and its leaders would have cheered any plan to bring jobs and industry to Sparrows Point, just east of Baltimore, which was once the site of America’s largest steel mill. But times have changed, and a plan to built an LNG terminal, which would transfer natural gas from ships to a pipeline to Pennsylvania, is no longer supported by a majority of citizens in Baltimore County. Among many reasons is that the terminal would pose a small but real risk of a colossal disaster. Accordingly, Baltimore County tried to use its right to regulate coastal development, under the Coastal Zone Management Act, to prohibit the terminal.
But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which sits in Baltimore, held that the County action did not overcome the federal Natural Gas Act, which gives the primary power to approve an LNG plan to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. If the federal authorities did not hold such authority, local interests might make it difficult to build any new natural gas project in the United States, with adverse repercussions to Americans nationwide who devour natural gas and howl about high fuel prices.
Does this system mean that environmental and local safety concerns don’t get enough attention? Yes. But some land use decisions are too important to be left solely to local government. I believe so with regard to low-cost housing projects, and with regard to liquefied natural gas terminals …