Tuesday, November 25, 2008

From Thanksgiving to … Hollywood of the East? …

   Should you give a rich person money, in the hopes that he or she will then reward you with an even larger gift?  It sounds risky.  But many American localities are in effect taking this step by adopting favorable land use laws to try to lure job-generating businesses.  From Plymouth, Massachusetts --- the Turkey location of the famous first Thanksgiving 398 years ago --- comes a story this week that the city has changed zoning laws and given real estate tax breaks to foster the construction of a movie studio complex, led by developer Plymouth Rock Studios.  The city hopes to create a “Hollywood East” along the shores of Massachusetts Bay.
   What first came to my mind was the short-lived “AutoWorld” theme park fostered by Flint, Michigan, in the 1980s in an attempt to bring new jobs and tourism to the once-great industrial auto city (you may remember AutoWorld being lampooned by Michael Moore).  Governmental plans to generate jobs simply by offering land use and financial incentives usually don’t work well in the long run.  If they did, every city would adopt them.  But in this era of anxious local governments, we may see more cities taking such desperate gambles –- which almost always eventually make the budgets and the local economies even worse. 
   Returning to Plymouth’s gamble, it is an obvious criticism to look skeptically on the hope that movie-makers to flock to Plymouth simply because the city has helped subsidize a studio.  Why?  I might just be too warm in Plymouth.  After all, doesn’t the city know that all movies are made in Canada?   

[Comments must be approved and thus take some time to appear online.]

November 25, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Housing the hurricane homeless, and the barrier of local land use law …

   In this year of big government solutions, one would think America would welcome the federal government’s assistance to those made homeless by hurricanes.  After all, one of the lessons of Hurricane Katrina a few years ago is that one government needs to be in charge of responses to disasters –- and that government should be (as it is with so many problems these days) the federal government, primarily though the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Hurricane  But the disturbing news from Texas this month is that FEMA, after a fairly successful effort to save and provide short-term housing to people left homeless by Hurricane Ike, is running into difficulties in setting up the moderate-term solution of mobile homes.  One significant problem is zoning laws that discriminate against mobile homes and other low-cost housing.  FEMA has plenty of mobile homes, it says, but not enough spots in southeast Texas on which to plant them.  Surely the typical antipathy to mobile homes and other low-cost housing has come into play here.
   If we as Americans demand the federal government to save us and house us when a natural disaster hits, shouldn’t some of our cherished local land use laws give way when this federal government needs land to house the hurricane homeless?

[Comments must be approved and thus take some time to appear online.]   

November 19, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The third rush hour ... ending talk of the end of sprawl? …

Officepark   Just a few months ago, with gasoline over $4 a gallon, chatter was full of talk of the “end of sprawl” with a rush to small cars and avoiding driving.  Land use law needed to adapt to a dense new world in which we’d all live in apartments without cars and walk down the block to buy our baguettes and then hop on the streetcars to our jobs two miles away.  A brave new world seemed at hand.   
   But with gas now selling for less than half of its spring value, can we say that the end of sprawl –- like the “end of history” proclaimed with the fall of communism –- was a tad premature? 
   It certainly appears so from this much-cited recent article in the Washington Post about the continued vigor of the “third rush hour” in the suburban office park empire of Tyson’s Corner.  With each office building separated from others by acres of parking lots and lunch establishments dotted across the landscapes, next to roaring highways, many lunchers who don’t bring their microwave meals get in cars to drive to lunch –- often for less than a mile.  Diners scoffed at the reporter’s suggestion that they might use a proposed shuttle bus to lunch.   
   Unless and until most American workers are willing (or able) to walk to lunch away from the office, it is way, way, too early even to spy the end of sprawl …

[Comments must be approved and thus take some time to appear online.]

November 13, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, November 10, 2008

The brave new world of billboards …

    If law can tell a homeowner that she can’t have a three-story house, or that her backyard shed is too big, or that she can’t paint her house pink, way can’t law restrict electronic billboards?  In Los Angeles, where many interact with society largely through a windshield (as do many Americans), a debate over the proliferation of electronic billboards is raging.
Billboard     Many years ago, I started but didn’t finish a short horror story about the future, in which most of our public space was occupied by various forms of high-tech advertising, and the only respite (for those handful of people for whom ubiquitous advertising seemed unwelcome) was personal video glasses.  Well, the future isn’t so distant anymore.  We now have the personal video glasses.  And in Los Angeles, many residents complain about a boom in shining electronic advertising signs.  One complication is a legal settlement (perhaps ill-advised) from a few years ago that gave some billboards owners the right to convert static billboards to electronic ones. 
     Before I could engage in too much snickering about this California story, I returned home from a trip to a nearby Florida beach island recently, and as I passed over a bridge to the mainland, a giant flashing billboard welcomed me back to the continent.  Before this hideous vision, my minds-eye idea of a “billboard” was rose-colored from my childhood experiences in riding to Florida and looking out for the kitschy-charming “South of the Border” signs.  But the modern versions hold no charm, in my opinion.  There is no Burma-Shave here. 
    One problem with a proposed legal effort in Los Angeles is the expense and time of monitoring and assessing the billboards.  One idea is to impose a fee on billboards to create a fund for monitoring.  Billboard opponents also argue that the new signs pose a greater hazard of distracting drivers than do static billboards, of course.  Will we see a rise in nuisance actions against billboards, and will a unified doctrine of urban billboard nuisance law develop?
   I conclude as I started:  If law can tell a homeowner what her house can look like, why can’t it regulate billboards?

[Comments must be approved and thus take some time to appear online.]

November 10, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The time for buying up land for the public?

100_0007    What benefits to land use policy arise by virtue of the housing price slump?  One answer is that governments and private organizations may be more able to buy the ownership of, or at least the development rights to, environmentally important areas, now that real estate prices are low.  In Hillsborough County, Florida, near where I live, the voters on Tuesday approved (here in Florida, citizens vote on just about everything, even things that most of them have no reason to understand) the extension of a program for the public purchase of environmentally sensitive lands in a rapidly growing county.  A national database of votes on such systems is here.
    True, governments are hurting for money these days, and proposals for new “non-essential” spending programs are unlikely to stir up much interest in many lawmakers.  But asking citizens whether they are willing to a pay a few dollars to buy land is more likely to get a positive political response than would a vote on raising taxes to do the same thing.  Just as it made sense for government to buy lands for parks in the low-value 1930s, now (and not when prices are high) is the sensible time to purchase (and make reasonable exercises of eminent domain) more public lands.

[Comments must be approved and thus take some time to appear online.]

November 6, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The changing hues of suburbs and city …

Princewilliam     If there were any doubt that the old model of a poor and diverse central city surrounded by affluent white suburbs is now thoroughly outmoded, here’s a fascinating story from the Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC, which have been some of the fastest growing in the nation.  In the new century, most of the growth in the outer suburbs, particularly in Prince William County –- once rural, but now in large part suburban –- has been due to the migration of minority residents, who are most often Latino.  In Prince William, now nearly half minority, new migrants have found lower prices (and, in too many instances, subprime loans), access to exurban jobs, and, eventually, backlash by more senior residents.  Meanwhile, older inner suburbs, such as Alexandria and Arlington, actually saw their percentages of minority residents fall in over the past decade.  Why?  These areas have become more popular for affluent families and singles who seek ready access to the big city; new and high-priced condo towers and townhouses have sprouted up everywhere.  Thus, the Virginia suburbs now resemble the model of many big European cities, in which the inner neighborhoods are prized by the wealthy, while immigrants must settle for the more distant suburbs.   
    What does this shift mean for land use law?  It means that outer suburbs must re-think their exclusionary zoning laws, designed when the idea of a exurb was a sleepy world of homogeneous and affluent citizens.  And it means reassessing the relationship between city and suburb, and between suburb and suburb.    

[Comments must be approved and thus take some time to appear online.]

November 4, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)