April 11, 2012
Do we need a distinct rural land-use law?
I just returned from a short commute down to our other research and teaching laboratory in the southeastern part of our state (with Stephen Miller and the students from our Boise-based Economic Development Clinic). Of course, given Idaho’s geography, that commute is over 1,200 miles roundtrip and requires heading in the wrong direction for the first 90 miles before detouring through Montana. But I was able to stop for a bike race in Missoula on Saturday, and then ski with my brother in Wyoming on Sunday, so it turned into a somewhat normal traveling weekend in this part of the world.
As I traveled home and watched the growing tapestry of insect remains develop on my windshield, I gradually realized that it represented something of a land-use-law Rorschach test. While I prefer my insects alive (I studied biology and have two young boys), the growing number of dead insects continually improved my mood. I ultimately realized that those dead insects represented two things to me. First, that spring has finally arrived. And second, that I had just traveled to someplace worth traveling to.
What does this have to do with land use law? Stephen’s clinic students have been working with the Teton County, Idaho planning department and county commissioners on a number of land-use issues, including how the county might deal with the hundreds of paper subdivisions that are scattered across the county’s rural areas (and, not insignificantly, they’ve also addressed how to deal with ‘dogs at large’). As I listened to their conversations, I thought about how most of our land-use law developed in urban and suburban areas. And I thought about how our land-use law might be ill-equipped to deal with rural land-use issues.
Other academic disciplines argue that rural places are different in some fundamental way, even if they struggle to describe it. Rural Sociology and Rural Geography are distinct academic sub-disciplines with their own theories, methodologies, and understandings of how people interact with each other and their lands and landscapes. And Planning departments often draw boundaries between rural and urban planning.
But what about the law and the legal tools we use to implement those plans and understandings? In Idaho, at least, we treat counties and municipalities equally. They have the same land-use authority, developed in the same statutory regime, and are treated equally by court decisions interpreting those statutes. They use the same tools. But they often deal with different issues in different social, cultural and ecological landscapes. Why does it make sense to use the same legal tools to address all of the complex tapestry of issues we encounter across our diverse urban, suburban, and rural landscapes?
So why is the insect-splattered windshield a land-use Rorschach test? Because I think our reactions to it might say something about how we think about place. Is it just an annoyance that requires cleaning? Or is it something else? And what does that decision say about how we think about land? I know I shouldn’t generalize my personal experiences, but to me the insects represent emptiness, distance, and place in a particular way. More than anything, they represent something that is not urban. And those things -- and the social and cultural structures they engender – require a different approach to land-use regulation.
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