Friday, February 8, 2008
Sprawl is slowing down, right? This has been the prediction for quite some time. But here is a Census-derived map that appears to paint a different tale. The map of county population growth over the first six years of the new century shows that the old trends have continued. Where are the fastest growing areas of the east? The answer continues to be the exurban counties of Atlanta, the outer suburbs of the Twin Cities, and the booming counties of northern Virginia –- despite the reputation of all three areas for hellish traffic and soulless planning –- and the amorphous developments of central Florida. Locations in the West tell a similar story –- suburbs of Denver, exurbs of Salt Lake, counties outside Dallas and Fort Worth, Riverside County, Cal., as well as that colossal suburb they call Phoenix –- continue to be the fastest growing areas.
Yes, such data can be misleading. Nye County, Nevada, grew more quickly than Clark (Las Vegas) in part because its population is so small relative to its huge neighbor. And the map fails to recognize the truth of the small but significant revitalization of many cities. But as to the question of whether exurbs have continued to fill out in the new century, the answer clearly is yes.
Since 2006, of course, we’ve experienced the full burst of housing bubble, as well as record-high gas prices. So experts will predict a significant slowdown in exurbanization over the next decade. By 2018, they’ll finally be right, yes? Surely. Absolutely. No doubt … Stay tuned …
Thursday, February 7, 2008
Land use law is unique because land is unique. Because location is so important, real estate can’t always be easily replaced by trying to buy it in the market. This is a reason that “set-asides” are such a powerful tool for getting low-cost housing built and maintained. Because developers so desire the legal right to built, they will agree to “set aside” a share of a residential development for low-cost housing, as long as it gets them their cherished government permit. The great incentive of profit gets low-cost housing built.
Thus it’s sad to read of the failings of the set-aside program of Montgomery County, Md., just north of Washington, which was one of the vanguards of set-asides back in the 1970s. According to the Washington Post today, many developers have not been held to their obligations, and many have been relieved of their duty by paying money to a housing fund. This is reminiscent of New Jersey’s complex affordable housing system, in which localities may pay, in certain circumstances, to avoid their obligation to build a “fair share” of low-cost housing.
It may be in the nature of government bureaucracies to prefer a system in which they receive money that they control, rather than have the private sector spend money. But if we want low-cost housing built quickly and efficiently, tapping the profit motive is likely to more effective than indirectly giving funds to a government fund.
Wednesday, February 6, 2008
How should land use law balance environmental concerns with essential economic needs? I remember the argument, back in the 1970s, that we should replace much of our unreliable foreign sources of oil with good ol’ American coal. Today, we’d reject such a suggestion, in large part because coal is such a nasty generator of greenhouses gases. But what about American lands that offer new sources of oil and gas? And what if they are environmentally special? In many instances, plans to extract these fossil fuels pit the local and state governments (who stand to gain only a share of the benefits but all of the potentials harms) against the national desire for fuel. In my state of Florida, the state has fought efforts to drill for oil in the Gulf of Mexico, where a spill could threaten Florida’s tourism. And on the Roan Plateau of western Colorado, the state government is trying to use land use law to prevent the Bush Administration’s Interior Department from issuing more gas leases –- leases that have suddenly become profitable with the spike in world fuel prices.
There should be no doubt that if places like the Roan Plateau (or Alaska’s North Slope) held reservoirs of fuel in amounts like those in the Persian Gulf, the benefits to the nation would outweigh most environmental concerns. But with relatively small benefits, it may still make sense to leave the risks to foreign nations, so long as we have the cash to pay for their resources.
Tuesday, February 5, 2008
How far can or should government go in regulating the details of residential land use? When does a regulation infringe on a resident’s “rights”? I saw on TV this weekend a segment about the ongoing battle in Coral Gables, Fla., a tony suburb of Miami, over its detailed rules for residential living, which include restrictions on the paint hues of homes and, most pertinently, a ban on parking a pickup truck on the street or driveway overnight. A short-term renter challenged the pickup rule and won –- the court concluding that the no-pickup rule infringed on his “rights.” The vehicle rule was irrational, in part because it did not ban other large motor vehicles. (Hmm ... why would an affluent town ban pickups but not Ford Explorers?)
One problem with judicial decisions such as these is that they are ad hoc. They lend little predictability as to whether a future court would find that an amorphous and specified “right” has been infringed upon, or where it will find the limits to the usual deference to a locality’s land use judgments.
I suggest that one way to do so would be to create a model set of limits on how far governments can go in regulating residential land use for the “public welfare.” A starting guideline would be the law of nuisance: If a regulation is of the type that nuisance has traditionally regulated (noise, odors, disease, etc.), the law will stand. If it fails to rise to this level, but is merely “desired” by neighbors for beenfits such as attractiveness -- such as with paint color or type of vehicle –- then the locality is entitled to no deference. Still too unfocused? Hey, it’s a start …
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