Monday, April 23, 2012
In search of a relaxing diversion after another hard day mulling the intricacies of land use and real property law, I sat down last night with my wife to enjoy a quirky, Oscar-nominated film called "The Descendants." You can imagine my surprise and indignation when a key plot point hinged on the rule against perpetuities! Although the intricacies of the rule were irrelevant, my enjoyment of the film was greatly diminished as I found myself attempting to mentally sort out how the rule would apply in this situation and whether the movie had gotten the rule right rather than paying attention to the poignant tale that was unfolding.
Fortunately for you, I am not going to spend this post saying whether the movie got the rule against perpetuities right because, frankly, that would just reveal my ignorance about the rule. Rather, the movie's treatment of the rule against perpetuities communicated an interesting and somewhat disturbing message about dead hand control in property law.
To summarize ever so briefly, the protagonist Matt King is a real estate lawyer in Hawaii who, along with innumerable cousins similarly garbed in garish Hawaiian shirts, has inherited an interest in 25,000 acres of pristine Hawaii land from a native Hawaiian ancestor. The land is held in a trust administered by our hero, who tells us at the outset that because of the rule against perpetuities, the trust is set to expire in seven years (thus beginning my confusion, as I had thought trusts were exempt from the rule). The entire local community is greatly interested in the fate of the land, which now rests in the hands of Mr. King along with several other weighty personal matters which will be resolved in the following 2 hours. SPOILER ALERT AHEAD:
Most of the cousins wish to sell the land now to a real estate developer before the trust expires. Our hero seems set to agree with them, but then dramatically changes his mind in the movie's conclusion, asserting that he and the family have an obligation to their ancestors, their descendants, and to the Hawaiian people at large to maintain the land in its pristine state. When his cousins question him about how he's going to get around the RAP problem, he says that he's got seven more years to figure that out. They seem convinced.
So what's the message for property lawyers? The movie interprets the RAP as a heartless legal formality that operates to remove land from its sentimental roots and convert it into a market commodity that can be exploited by rapacious real estate developers (it is no coincidence that the nearest thing the movie has to a villain is a real estate broker). This is, to say the least, an interpretation of the RAP that property profs will find novel. I have always understood the purpose of the RAP to be the prevention of a landed aristocracy: no longer can a landowner ensure that the source of his or her wealth stay in the family for all time. The dramatic conclusion of "The Descendants," by contrast, asks us to cheer for the protagonist as he attempts to perpetuate his family's landed aristocracy into perpetuity. The movie accomplishes this through a clever trick: we do not see the protagonist as an aristocrat, but as someone whose wealth and privilege is a burden because he is so conscious of the monumental social impact of his great fortune. And it's easy to look good when your adversary is a developer. The movie practically makes one nostalgic for the days when society was ruled by a patrician class with an acute sense of social responsibility. After Citizens United, we still have the patrician class, but without the social responsibility.
In short, I could not enjoy the movie.
Monday, March 26, 2012
Property Prof Blogger extraordinaire and official Land Use Prof Blog Buddy Steve Clowney draws attention to an interesting recent column from NY Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman about NYU's plans to expand within Greenwhich Village. I agree with Steve's assessment that the column focuses too much attention on the effect the expansion would have on a little used plot of park space. It is curious that Kimmelman opens the column describing NYU's expansion plans as "acrimonious" but then immediately pivots away from describing any of the actual acrimony to an issue that only he seems to care about, to wit, this "underrated" park that nobody know exists.
Kimmelman's main argument appears to be that NYU itself is responsible for the park space in question falling into disuse, and so the city should leverage its zoning power to force NYU to make the park more accessible. At this point, I was running for my land use casebook to consult the Supreme Court's exactions jurisprudence (For land use newbies: governments are generally not allowed to leverage their zoning power for concessions absent an "essential nexus" between the concession sought and the land use approval requested).
In any event, I can't say Kimmelman is wrong as a policy matter. He may be right that the village needs more open space and that NYU's plan is antithetical to that need. To me, the most interesting part of Kimmelman's piece was his contention that the original Modernist "tower-in-the-park" design that spawned the endangered park space had actually done a good job of bringing much-needed open space to the village before NYU messed it all up. This is at odds with the conventional wisdom that the tower-in-the-park idea was a monstrosity that necessarily brought about extremely alienating public spaces (wisdom made conventional, of course, by a previous crusader against Greenwhich Village construction plans, Jane Jacobs). For an example of such an alienating space, check this out:
For those wondering, this is Empire State Plaza in Albany, New York, a gift of Modernist-loving governor Nelson Rockefeller.
I see an interesting parallel between Kimmelman's affection for Modernist park design in this column and his paean to the virtues of Modernist housing complexes in another column about which I blogged previously. Kimmelman seems committed to resuscitating a form of urban design that has been largely relegated to the dustbin of bad planning ideas. For that, I commend him!
Wednesday, March 14, 2012
While visiting New York City recently for the Association of American Geographers' annual meeting, I took in a great exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York entitled The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan 1811-2011. The exhibit coincides with the 200th anniversary of the adoption of the famous street grid for the island of Manhattan. It is a fascinating exploration of one of the most significant urban planning endeavors in American history. You can see an overview of the exhibit here, and the New York Times Review of the exhibit here. My thoughts on the exhibit, with pictures, are below:
J. Peter Byrne (Georgetown) has posted Historic Preservation and its Cultured Despisers: Reflections on the Contemporary Role of Preservation Law in Urban Development, George Mason Law Review, Vol. 19 (2012). The abstract:
The past years have seen widely noticed critiques of historic preservation by “one of our leading urban economists,” Edward Glaeser, and by star architect Rem Koolhaas. Glaeser, an academic economist specializing in urban development, admits that preservation has value. But he argues in his invigorating book, Triumph of the City, and in a contemporaneous article, Preservation Follies, that historic preservation restricts too much development, raises prices, and undermines the vitality of the cities. Koolhaas is a Pritzker Prize-winning architect and oracular theorist of the relation between architecture and culture. In his New York exhibit, Cronocaos, he argued that preservation lacks an organizing theory, imposes inauthentic consumer-friendly glosses on older structures, and inhibits architectural creativity. Although these critiques are as different as the cultural spaces inhabited by their authors (although both are professors at Harvard), both seemed to strike nerves, suggesting an underlying unease about how large a role preservation has come to play in urban development. This article assesses these critiques as part of an ongoing effort to make sense of historic preservation law.
This article proceeds as follows: First, it presents Glaeser’s critique in detail, placing it within the context of his larger argument about what makes cities attractive and dynamic. Grappling with the strengths and weaknesses of Glaeser’s critique leads to a discussion of how preservation regulation actually works and clarification of some of the benefits it confers. Second, this Article will attempt to specify Koolhaas’s critique, connecting it to similar complaints about preservation by more linear thinkers. Weighing objections to the coherence or authenticity of preservation leads to further discussion of the role that preservation plays in the larger culture. This article concludes with a call for future research.
Wednesday, March 7, 2012
Here's another new SSRN paper from Daniel R. Mandelker (Washington U): The Design Problem in Planned Communities. The abstract:
Planned communities are a dominant form of development, both in suburban areas and as infill in urban settings. Planned communities can be clusters of homes with common open space or master-planned communities covering thousands of acres, but in any form they provide opportunities for excellent design. This is the first chapter in a book that reviews the concepts and ideas that go into the design of planned communities, and explores how local governments can encourage and provide for their good design through land-use regulation.
Monday, February 27, 2012
The possibility of Walmart coming to Athens, GA has now made the mainstream (albiet on-line) media with this story in Salon:
The Athens, Ga., soul-food joint Weaver D’s has barely changed in the 20 years since its slogan, “Automatic for the People,” supplied the name of a groundbreaking R.E.M. album.
You could say the same about Athens itself. After businesses fled in the ’80s, downtown Athens rebounded as an alt-rock mecca that spawned the soundtrack of Generation X. R.E.M., the B-52s, Widespread Panic and thousands of other musicians and artists helped create what is, in many ways, today a dream city: a mixed-use, walkable urban core filled with small businesses, plenty of green space — and a music scene that rivals that of cities 10 times its size.
Cue “The End of the World as We Know It.” A multi-building mall-like shopping complex, likely to include the dreaded Walmart, has set its sights on downtown Athens. Renderings by the Atlanta-based developer Selig Enterprises show a bricked concourse surrounded by large-scale retail, including a 94,000-square-foot superstore, topped with apartments. It also includes three restaurants — two of which are over 10,000 square feet — and 1,150 parking spaces. This is new for downtown Athens, which unlike most college towns, has largely kept chains away.
“There’s an Athens style,” says Willow Meyer, a 37-year-old lawyer who moved here with her husband [UGA law prof Tim Meyer] two years ago, “and if you just import this kind of ‘Anywhere, USA’ development, the city loses something.”
Another group in metro Atlanta is also fighting a Walmart, proposed by the same company behind the Athens development.
Jamie Baker Roskie
February 27, 2012 in Community Design, Community Economic Development, Development, Downtown, Economic Development, Georgia, Local Government, Planning, Politics, Redevelopment, Smart Growth, Urbanism | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)
Wednesday, February 22, 2012
Conservation easements are an important tool in the conservationist’s toolkit—created by state legislation and supported by substantial federal and local tax benefits to encourage private lands to be used for conservation purposes in perpetuity. Nevertheless, developers have asked courts to release conservation easement based on various legal principles including that of changed circumstances. These perpetual easements have been conveyed voluntarily and the benefits of the conveyance have accrued to the donor, and any successors in interest, which include expansive federal and state tax benefits as well as potential vested zoning rights.
Developers are asking courts to ignore the independent enforceability of the contractual agreement that established these conservation easements. These easements are contractually created enforceable property rights, independent of any additional consideration. See e.g. N.J.S.A. 18:B-3. Conservation easements are supported by valid consideration, entirely separate from more traditional municipal grants of development rights. In exchange for donating the conservation easement to a municipality or charitable land trust, the landowners receive above mentioned substantial tax benefits from both the federal and state governments. A changed circumstances claim is insufficient to nullify this independently created contract obligation.
In New Jersey the legislature created the statutory backstop for conservation easements in 1979 via the Conservation Restriction and Historic Preservation Restriction Act. Prior to this legislative enactment conservation easements were of dubious enforceability given the common law’s hostility to perpetual negative easements in gross (a.k.a. conservation easements). See Restatement (Third) of Property (Servitudes) § 1.6. The New Jersey statute established a framework for enactment as well as removal of such encumberments. N.J.S.A. 13:8B-1 et seq. These removal procedures are clearly set forth in the Act; the release of a conservation easement may only be accomplished (1) under the statute; (2) with a public hearing; (3) after providing notice by publication; (4) with the Commissioner of New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s approval; (5) if it is in the public interest; and (6) recognizing the negotiated terms of the conservation easement itself.
Despite the independent enforceability of individual conservation easement contracts and various state statutory frameworks, developers are asking courts to be released from these easements—resulting in an economic windfall for the developer. These developers actively entered into, or purchased the land subject to, conservation easement and its limited provisions for extinguishment. They have also benefitted from generous local and federal tax deductions. Conservation easements—and the proper channels for their release—must be upheld as tools of conservation as intended by legislatures and traditional contract law and not used as an economic subsidy for developers when circumstances change.
Monday, February 6, 2012
During his excellent stint as a guest blogger, Stephen Miller posed the question, "Does the best planning happen in a recession?" Like him, I tend to think that currently most jurisdictions are focused on crisis management rather than forward thinking.
However, one exception is Newton County, Georgia - a community that just happens to be a UGA Land Use Clinic client since we began assisting them in 2003 with sprawl reduction tools like infrastructure planning, agricultural land conservation, and transferable development rights. Newton's forward thinking planning processes are highlighted in a four part series on CoLab Radio. The first of the series is entitled "Planning for Growth in a Recession."
Jamie Baker Roskie
February 6, 2012 in Community Design, Development, Georgia, Local Government, New Urbanism, Planning, Smart Growth, Sprawl, Suburbs, Transferable Development Rights | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
Wednesday, February 1, 2012
Late last year I posted twice (here and here) about a proposal to put a mixed-use development, anchored by a 100K square foot Wal-Mart, into downtown Athens. Today things heated up in a very Athens way, with Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers unveiling a protest song and a group called "Protect Downtown Athens" launching an incredibly thorough website analyzing many aspects of the development. This group is supported by members and management of R.E.M., and other local movers and shakers. Release of the song has already increased coverage of this issue in the national blogosphere and MSM. This just keeps getting more interesting!
Jamie Baker Roskie
February 1, 2012 in Community Economic Development, Development, Downtown, Economic Development, Georgia, Local Government, Redevelopment, Smart Growth, Urbanism | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
Monday, January 23, 2012
On Morning Edition today, NPR ran a story about farmers who sold land for development repurchasing it for agriculural use. Here's the summary:
Over the past half-century more than 20 million acres of U.S. farmland were transformed into housing developments. With new home construction all but stopped, farmers in many areas are buying or leasing land once slated for development and planting crops on it.
Saturday, January 14, 2012
From an email sent by Rick Su (Buffalo), the Chair of the AALS Section on State & Local Government Law, here is something that may be of interest to land users. The Section is already planning for the 2013 AALS meeting in New Orleans:
The tentative title is Cities in Recession. The program will look into the many ways that cities have not only been affected by, but are also responding to, the current economic downturn. This should provide a timely lens for exploring a wide range of local government issues, from municipal finance to education to economic development. In addition, it offers an opportunity to look at both distressed and resilient cities. The planning for this panel is in its early stages; I eagerly welcome any comments or suggestions that you might have (email@example.com).
Thursday, January 5, 2012
I've been enjoying the outstanding posts on last week's landmark California Supreme Court ruling by Ken Stahl (here and here) and guest-blogger Stephen Miller (here and here) (I smell a great panel or symposium topic in the making). Just now I came a cross an early analysis by Stephen Greenhut at City Journal, the always-interesting center-right urban affairs journal. Greenhut has a strongly positive take on the decision in Crony Capitalism Rebuked California’s supreme court strikes a blow for property rights and fiscal sanity:
On December 29, the California Supreme Court handed down what the state’s urban redevelopment agencies (RDAs) and their supporters called a “worst of all worlds” ruling—first upholding a law that eliminates the agencies, then striking down a second law that would have allowed them to buy their way back into power. This was great news for critics who had spent years calling attention to the ways modern urban-renewal projects distorted city land-use decisions, abused eminent-domain policies, and diverted about 12 percent of the state budget from traditional public services to subsidies for developers, who would build tax-producing shopping centers and other projects sought by city bureaucrats. As of now, the agencies are history, though the redevelopment industry is working to craft new legislation that would resurrect them in some limited form.
January 5, 2012 in California, Caselaw, Constitutional Law, Development, Economic Development, Eminent Domain, Judicial Review, Local Government, Politics, Property Rights, Real Estate Transactions, Redevelopment, State Government | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)
Apparently Athens, Georgia isn't the only Georgia community facing controversy over a downtown Wal-Mart (see my previous posts here and here). The City of Sandy Springs, in metro Atlanta, just placed a moratorium on big box development in its downtown in light of rumors that Wal-Mart wants to place a store there. As Chad Emerson blogged last year, Wal-Mart has been eyeing the urban market for awhile. It seems now they're getting some pushback.
Jamie Baker Roskie
Saturday, December 31, 2011
As we head into the New Year, The Urban Land Institute has also been looking ahead at the future of land use. ULI recently issued its report What's Next? Real Estate in the New Economy. From the press release:
A new economy is unfolding over the course of this decade, driven by an extraordinary convergence of demographic, financial, technological and environmental trends. Taken together, these trends will dramatically change urban planning, design and development through 2020, according to a new report from the Urban Land Institute (ULI).
What’s Next? Real Estate in the New Economy outlines how every aspect of living, working and connecting will change in major ways, driven in large part by the values, preferences and work ethic of Generation Y, the largest generation in American history. . . .
Among the report’s findings:
- Technology will reshape work places. Office tenants will decrease space per employee, and new office environments will need to promote interaction and dialogue. Offices will be transforming into meeting places more than work places, with an emphasis on conference rooms, break areas and open configurations. Developers will craft attractive environments to attract young, talented workers.
- Major companies will value space that enables innovation. They will continue to pay more for space in a global gateway served by a major international airport, or in 24-hour urban centers. Hard-to-reach suburban work places will be less in demand.
- The influx of Generation Y, now in their teens through early thirties, will change housing demand. They are comfortable with smaller homes and will happily trade living space for an easier commute and better lifestyle. They will drive up the number of single households and prompt a surge in demand for rentals, causing rents to escalate.
- For most people, finances will still be constrained, leading to more shared housing and multi-generational households. Immigration will support that trend, as many immigrants come from places where it is common for extended families to share housing. This may be the one group that continues to drive demand for large, suburban homes.
- The senior population will grow fastest, but financial constraints could limit demand for adult housing developments. Many will age in place or move in with relatives to conserve money. Developers may want to recast retirement communities into amenity-laden “age friendly” residences. Homes near hospitals and medical offices will be popular, especially if integrated into mixed-use neighborhoods with shops, restaurants and services.
- Energy and infrastructure take on greater importance. Businesses cannot afford to have their network connections down, and more will consider self-generated power or onsite generator capacity. Developers, owners and investors are realizing that the slightly higher costs of energy- and water-saving technologies can pay for themselves quickly, creating more marketable and valuable assets. Ignoring sustainability issues speeds property obsolescence.
You can download the full report here.
December 31, 2011 in Architecture, Clean Energy, Density, Development, Downtown, Environmentalism, Finance, Green Building, Housing, Planning, Property, Real Estate Transactions, Redevelopment, Scholarship, Smart Growth, Suburbs, Sustainability, Transportation, Urbanism, Water | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
Tuesday, December 20, 2011
Nestor M. Davidson (Fordham) has posted Sketches for a Hamiltonian Vernacular as a Social Function of Property, Fordham Law Review, Vol. 80 (2011). The abstract:
This symposium article examines the intersection between Léon Duguit’s concept of the social function of property, predicated on an affirmative duty on owners to put their property to productive use for the sake of social solidarity, and a tradition in the property law of the United States that similarly reflected this kind of pro-development norm. The article associates the impulse to associate ownership with a productivity oriented social function with certain Hamiltonian themes at the founding and in the early nineteenth-century salus populi tradition, and argues that the imperative remains a background norm in the United States that contrasts with classical liberal absolutism and certain strains of civic republican property norms.
Absolutely fascinating-- an original insight that makes an important contribution to our understanding of early republic property theory and its implications for property law today.
Monday, December 5, 2011
Perhaps no theology more grips the nation’s mainstream media — and the planning community — more than the notion of inevitable suburban decline. The Obama administration’s housing secretary, Shaun Donavan, recently claimed, “We’ve reached the limits of suburban development: People are beginning to vote with their feet and come back to the central cities.”
Yet repeating a mantra incessantly does not make it true. Indeed, any analysis of the 2010 U.S. Census would make perfectly clear that rather than heading for density, Americans are voting with their feet in the opposite direction: toward the outer sections of the metropolis and to smaller, less dense cities. During the 2000s, the Census shows, just 8.6% of the population growth in metropolitan areas with more than 1 million people took place in the core cities; the rest took place in the suburbs. That 8.6% represents a decline from the 1990s, when the figure was 15.4%.
Nor are Americans abandoning their basic attraction for single-family dwellings or automobile commuting. Over the past decade, single-family houses grew far more than either multifamily or attached homes, accounting for nearly 80% of all the new households in the 51 largest cities. And — contrary to the image of suburban desolation — detached housing retains a significantly lower vacancy rate than the multi-unit sector, which has also suffered a higher growth in vacancies even the crash. . . .
It turns out that while urban land owners, planners and pundits love density, people for the most part continue to prefer space, if they can afford it. No amount of spinmeistering can change that basic fact, at least according to trends of past decade.
But what about the future? Some more reasoned new urbanists, like Leinberger, hope that the market will change the dynamic and spur the long-awaited shift into dense, more urban cores.
Kotkin provides further statistics derived from his Census analysis. This debate is central to the future of housing policy and urban planning in America.
Thursday, December 1, 2011
I had an interesting conversation this morning with Meg Mirshak, a reporter from The Augusta Chronicle. She contacted me for background on a series of stories she's doing on a proposed overlay zone that would allowed mixed-use development in a historic African-American neighborhood called Laney-Walker. The overlay as proposed is very general, but requires specific permission for uses like pawn shops and liquor stores. The community feels underinformed and is very concerned about the potential impact on their neighborhood. Also, this concept of an overlay zone is confusing to many, and the commission has delayed its vote on the overlay until January due to the confusion and to notice problems.
Mirshak asked me if I could provide examples of where overlay zoning has proved succesful, and honestly, this stumped me. We've proposed particular types of overlay zoning in some of our client communities - to require more pedestrian friendly redevelopment on aging strip corridors, for example - but the time horizon on implementing these changes is so long that I can't honestly say I know of a "successful" use of overlay zoning. Also, as I pointed out to her in a follow up e-mail, overlay zoning is really just a form, so it's kind of like asking if any type of form - buildings, novels, movies - are inherently successful. Yes, those forms can be successful or they can be a disaster, depending on how you construct them and what you're trying to accomplish. With any zoning tool the trick is to make sure they reflect the community's goals and market realities, and that they deliver what's best for the long term vibrancy of the city. And that often involves a lot of process, more process than they seem to have allowed for in Augusta.
Coincidentally, I stumbled across a blog post on Planetizen, written by an urban planner who lead a group of students to plant trees at a New Orleans school, only to be thwarted in their task by a schoolyard shooting. The post, titled "Can't Buy Me Love - or Plan for It," points out the importance of human connection in urban planning.
In my first year and a half as a working urban planner, I've consistently come back to the lessons I learned in New Orleans in 2009: For all of the innovative design that you can bring to a city, and for all of the smart planning principles that they teach you in school, there's no match for literally and figuratively digging your heels into a neighborhood, getting residents invested in the work that you're doing, and—together—building a partnership that leads to the kind of community building that can't be taught.
I can't say better than that. Here's hoping the planners in Augusta can do what it takes to get the residents invested in what they're trying to accomplish.
Jamie Baker Roskie
Wednesday, November 30, 2011
So, today I waded into the local controversy about the possibility of a Wal-Mart in downtown Athens with an editorial in the local weekly. [Note - this article is no longer available on the original site, so this link is to a re-posted version.] Specifically, I responded to media reports that the county attorney has said the developers have vested rights to develop the property based on the amount of money they claim to have spent on site preparation. Now, Georgia has a pretty generous vested rights doctrine, but it's not that generous. As in most states, you still have to have some kind of official assurance for rights to vest. Apparently now the county attorney doesn't want to talk about it, but other folks on both sides of the issue certainly have been.
This type of controversy is not unique to Athens, apparently. A casual perusal of media reports turns up vested rights controversies over proposed Wal-Marts in Hood River, Oregon, Leon County, Florida, San Antonio, Texas, and Abingdon, Virginia. Is this some kind of trend?
Jamie Baker Roskie
Friday, November 18, 2011
From the Sustainable Communities folks at EPA:
New Partnership for Sustainable Communities Report:
Supporting Sustainable Rural Communities
The HUD-DOT-EPA Partnership for Sustainable Communities and the USDA has
just released Supporting Sustainable Rural Communities, a report that
discusses how the four agencies are collaborating to support rural
communities. This publication highlights how small towns and rural
places across the country are using federal resources to strengthen
their economies, provide better quality of life to residents, and build
on local assets such as traditional main streets, agricultural lands,
and natural resources.
The report includes sections on how HUD, DOT, EPA, and USDA programs
support environmentally and economically sustainable growth in rural
places; performance measures rural communities can use to target their
investments; and 12 case studies of rural communities using federal
resources to achieve their development and economic goals. It also
outlines steps the Partnership for Sustainable Communities is pursuing
to support small towns and rural places.
To read the report, please visit this website.
Jamie Baker Roskie
Wednesday, November 9, 2011
OK, I'll bite. Matt has laid down the gauntlet with his criticism of the initiative process. This subject is of great importance to land use profs because, at least in many sunbelt states, a good deal of land use policy is made through direct democracy -- so-called "ballot box zoning." In this post, I want to respond to some of Matt's criticisms and offer a very tentative defense of ballot box zoning. For those who are interested, I have defended ballot box zoning at greater length (although I ultimately call for its abolition anyway) in this paper.
I must first concede to Matt that the initiative process has serious deficiencies. He mentions transparency and voter ignorance. The social science literature confirms that these are major problems. I would also add a few more: the initiative process is often captured by special interest groups, as money and organizational resources are often decisive in initiative contests; the initiative tends to favor the affluent and well educated, which is not surprising since the affluent and well educated are more likely to vote on initiatives; voters are easily confused by deceptive wording on initiatives, and initiative advocates often deliberately use deceptive terms to confuse voters; the initiative process reduces complex issues to a simplistic yes/no dichotomy in which hyperbolic sound bytes replace rational discourse. I suppose I could go on, but you get the point.
So what virtues could the initiative process possibly have? I want to focus specifically on the land use initiative, although some of my comments may be generalizable. Although it is often asserted that local politics are controlled by homeowners who seek to limit or manage growth, that is generally true only in smaller municipalities. Sunbelt states like Texas and California, however, have a disproportionate number of medium to large-size municipalities, dubbed "boomburbs" by sociologists Robert Lang and Jennifer LeFurgy. The larger size of these municipalities gives homeowners less political power. At the same time, sunbelt boomburbs have often pursued headlong development as a means of economic growth and to overcome fiscal constraints imposed by constitutional or political limitations on raising tax revenue. Lang and LeFurgy accordingly assert that these municipalities tend to be in thrall to the "growth machine," a matrix of developers and related cohorts who facilitate urban growth. As I further argue in my paper, the fact that many of these boomburbs use at-large voting structures rather than ward voting systems further enhances the power of developers and dilutes the ability of neighborhood groups to fight development.
Obviously, this system is less than ideal for homeowners. And let's face it: while we might hate those NIMBYs, they have some pretty good reasons for opposing new growth. For years it has been national policy to induce Americans to purchase property through a combination of incentives, including low-interest mortgages and municipal zoning ordinances that provide some assurances to homeowners that their property values, and hence their ability to pay off their mortgages, will be protected against unpredictable declines. New growth and the externalities that accompany it are very likely to diminish property values, and hence prejudice the ability of homeowners to finance what is likely to be by far their most significant asset. Existing homeowners are in effect subsidizing new growth through diminished property values, and although city officials claim that everyone benefits from new growth, it is often a concentrated group of homeowners alone who must bear a disproportionate degree of the cost. As I questioned in a previous post, it can even be argued that homeowners have a regulatory takings claim -- but courts have never recognized such a cause of action.
As envisioned by its Progressive-era architects, the initiative is supposed to correct the defects in the ordinary legislative process, particularly the dominance of special interests. And that is exactly what ballot-box zoning appears to do in the sunbelt states -- the very states where boomburbs, at-large voting and the growth machine dominate the political landscape are also the states where ballot-box zoning is most robust. Ballot box zoning has proven to be a powerful weapon with which homeowners can fight back against the growth machine, because prevailing on a local initiative requires only a one-time infusion of cash and a constituency that is easily organized and highly motivated -- ie, a group of neighboring homeowners who are all extremely ticked off about land use changes around their neighborhood. This can counteract the repeat player and other advantages that the developer has in the legislative process. Granted, the initiative process itself invites special interest abuses and all sorts of other problems, but it seems no less messy or dysfunctional than the system of government it is designed to counterbalance.