Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Floodplains and FEMA … and parentalism in Washington State …

   In this year of federal government intervention throughout the economy (do we really need standards for light bulbs when we have a cap-and-trade system coming, which would allow for the expression of preferences in carbon emissions?), it is no surprise that today’s land use story from the cool Pacific Northwest concerns federal insinuation in land use decisions.   Along the Snohomish River, near Monroe, Washington-st-snohomish northeast of Seattle, the county of Snohomish has permitted a mobile home park.  The area regularly floods during the wet winter months.  The Federal Emergency Management Agency recently informed the county that unless it uses its land use powers to move the mobile home park out of the floodplain, FEMA will withdraw insurance coverage for the county. The County thus has no real choice (quick, somebody alert Justice Thomas!).
   Isn’t it paternalism for the federal government to tell people who live in a floodplain (probably with low rents and other housing costs) that it’s unsafe to live there?  Well, sometimes paternalism makes sense.  If there’s a big flood this December, would we allow FEMA to tell residents crying for help:  “You made your floodplain home, now lie in it”?  Of course not …   

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July 1, 2009 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, June 29, 2009

Clash of history and density …

   It’s common to think of community-oriented land use laws – historic preservation, smart growth, pedestrian-friendly design – as being complementing pieces of a whole.  But this is not always the case:  sometimes one goal clashes sharply with another.  
Portland    Let’s continue with the Pacific Northwest focus this week.   From Portland, Ore., comes this interesting story about locally unwanted apartment development in Irvington, a close-in neighborhood with many “grand dame Victorian” houses, and, as in many such neighborhoods, one that has seen its ups and downs (with the present being “up”).  The focus is on residents who purchased Victorians in the “Irvington Conservation District,” only to discover that an apartment building was planned for across the street.
   “Exactly how,” asks the Preservation magazine, “does a developer get permission to construct an out-of-scale, out-of-character building in a Portland conservation district?  In a word, zoning.”  Well, that’s not all.  Not only is much of the area zoned for high-density residential – something that a buyer who can afford a grand dame should have been able to figure out – but Portland follows a famous state policy of encouraging close-in, high-density housing.   So density and historic preservation don’t always match; here, they clash.  And just maybe density is a more important social policy for land use law.  
   Although I might feel sorry for Irvington homebuyers who have to look at “out-of-character” two-story apartment buildings across the street, I can assure them that if they want to buy a big old Victorian in a place such as Dubuque, Iowa, these homes are currently cheap, plentiful, and in single-family residential zones, and there’s a great chance that nobody will be asking to build a big new apartment building across the street.   

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June 29, 2009 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)