Monday, March 30, 2009

Summertime is coming … and the book is about Euclid …

   This is the time of year to start making one’s summer reading list.  At the top of my list is a new book by Professor Michael Allan Wolf, “The Zoning of America: Euclid v. Ambler.”  In the epochal Euclid case from 1926, the U.S. Supreme Court broke from its early 20th century record of disapproving regulations of the free market and property rights to uphold a suburb’s zoning law.  Wolf, who is both an historian and a lawyer, explores the making of the case and its wide-ranging effects in creating modern American land use law and modern American human geography.  I can’t wait to toss down that beach towel, steady the pastel umbrella, and plunge into the tale …

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March 30, 2009 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Wilderness or renewable energy? …

   The federal Wilderness Act, enacted back in the optimistic year of 1964, defines such areas as federal land “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”  Today, Congress began debate on legislation to expand the stretches of lands designated largely as off limits to construction, forestry, mining, and other human intrusions.  But here is a fascinating story of a growing rift in the environmental community over whether some lands –- especially the open deserts of the Southwest, including California’s Mojave –- might be better-suited for large-scale solar development or wind farms.  While the traditional environmental line is that conservation, not increased production, should take precedence in the nation’s energy policy, places such as the Mojave also offer some of the best opportunities in the nation for large-scale production of renewable energy.  And California has, of course, pledged to increase vastly its renewable energy share, largely in order to decrease its carbon emissions.
 IMG_0600   I find it nonsensical to make categorical assertions that either one of two worthy land uses –- be it pure wilderness or renewable energy –- should always take precedence in land use policy.  But it does seem to me that the ideal of the Wilderness Act was always a bit cockeyed.  While we once might have imagined “untrammeled” nature, we now know that few areas of the planet have been untouched by humans, as far back as centuries ago.  Humans, like beavers, birds, and tortoises, have made their mark to some extent in most places, including the Mojave.  As a veteran hiker in wildernesses from Virginia to California to Alaska, I also know that designated wilderness areas are trammeled by hiking boots and horse hooves and altered by fire rings and foot bridges.  So while of course I wouldn’t want my personal favorite areas, such as California’s Joshua Tree Pinto Basin (see my January 2009 photo), filled with solar panels, my inclination is that our age needs land for renewable energy in California perhaps more than it needs more wilderness areas.  After all, in 100 years, when we figure out how to beam down fusion-created electricity from the moon, we can always remove the panels (unlike with houses) and let the desert return to its relatively untrammeled state ….

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March 25, 2009 | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Demolishing America …

   Whither goes the law of construction in a country where little is being built?  Perhaps it moves to the law of demolition.  Here are two interesting stories about the very literal disappearance of old industrial America: the disassembly of the huge former Ford plant adjacent to the Atlanta airport (being close to the world’s busiest airport, there are plans for development of the site) and the new work of Habitat for Humanity in demolishing vacant houses in declining industrial cities such as Saginaw, Mich.   
Foreclosure    When manufacturing leaves a factory for good, or people leave a town for good, there are solid reasons for having law mandate an orderly demolition. Crime, drugs, and fire often fill the voids of vacant buildings, as we have seen in neighborhoods blighted by a large number of foreclosed houses.  Perhaps commercial owners and banks should have an obligation to see that their properties do not become nuisance to the community.  There is precedent in laws such as the federal hazardous waste handling statute, which requires a disposal facility to have financial guarantees in case the facility has to close.  Perhaps governments should pay better attention to whether vacant commercial buildings might be reusable for schools or homeless shelters.  Transforming an economy is never easy, but land use law should see (under the law’s guiding principle) that it is accomplished with the interests of the community in mind …

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March 24, 2009 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The future of urban land use … courtesy of a more diverse America? …

    How will the increasing ethnic diversity of America affect land use law?  One way that immigration is bound to change the law is that people from other nations will bring different perceptions of what makes a pleasant community.  The San Francisco Chronicle yesterday ran a story about a survey of how residents from different ethnic areas in Oakland (pic below) perceive their neighborhoods.  (Here’s a copy of a survey form.)     
Oakland    I’m beginning today my teaching of land use law to first-year law students.  One of the points that I’ll stress is that a bias in favor of single-family-home suburbia has been inherent in much American law over the past century.  With today’s rapid influx of people from other nations, however, the commonly shared ideal of a pleasant community (to the extent that there ever was one) may dissolve.  The Oakland survey found that immigrants from Latin America or China tend to prefer –- and tend to construct –- neighborhoods that remind them of their home country (or at least the comforting aspects of that home country).  This may involve less orientation toward the automobile and private space and more emphasis on pedestrianism, sidewalk commerce, and vibrant public spaces.    
   Who knows –- in 2026, we may get a judge who was the child of immigrants writing an important court opinion that, tossing 1926’s Village of Euclid v. Ambler Realty Co. on its head, by stating that “the integration of residential, business, and small industrial buildings will provide a more favorable environment for a community in which to rear children .…”    

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March 19, 2009 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

A history of the making of the ghetto …

   What causes racial segregation and “ghettos”?  Behavioral economists point out that if most people prefer not to be a racial minority in their neighborhood, rather extreme segregation may occur by private sorting.  Sociologists point to the isolation that ghettos engender, which almost ensures their persistence.  But legal scholars also point to the role that government land use laws play in segregating by race.  Indeed, the original “ghetto” in Venice was so-called because of laws that confined Jews to the area near the foundry (the word “ghetto” supposedly derives from the Venetian dialect’s word for foundry).   Although American governments have been prevented for nearly a century from zoning by race of residents, for decades the policies of various government agencies (including mortgage insurers) was to discourage racial integration, through the practice of “redlining.”
   A new book that is getting a lot of publicity is “Family Properties” by Beryl Satter (see this review in the Washington Post.)  Although I don’t usually like to refer to books that I haven’t read, Satter’s book seems to be particularly timely, in that it draws a link between the pushing of subprime loans on minority households in recent years to the abuses of black families in housing in earlier decades.  Focusing on Chicago, Satter’s thesis appears to be that redlining facilitated the mistreatment by lenders and landlords, playing a large role in creating the dreary ghettos that still plague cities such as Chicago today.

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March 18, 2009 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The rise of tent cities …

  In another depressing parallel to the 1930s, there are more stories about tent cities –- the synthetic age’s equivalent of Hoovervilles or shantytowns –- popping up in the news.  One of the most striking stories is from Sacramento –- the second most important capital city in the nation --- where hundreds of people have congregated in a tent city along the American River. (See today’s editorial in the Sacramento Bee.) Some have lost their home to foreclosure; others are more traditional homeless that Sacramento suffer from psychological or physical problems.  What should government do about the tent city, if anything?  The location along the river is not a good one, and the conditions appear to beg for an outbreak of disease, fire, or other calamity.  Some are talking about having the government provide some services to improve conditions of the tent city. 
I welcome the idea of the government offering low-cost services to marginal living conditions for homeless people.  But the residents should have to go half-way; they should be forced (yes, I said it) to move to a more sanitary location that causes potential fewer hazards to the public.

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March 12, 2009 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

What do homeowners want?

   What do property owners want from their local land use laws?  I read this week a good student paper on zoning, in which the student cited many economic analyses that stated, with only slight generalization, that what homeowners want from their land use rules is the maximization of property values at resale.  Period.   
Housestreet   This is surely is an oversimplification concerning land use law –- a theme that I touched on last week.  One of the points that economists are supposed to emphasize is that economics isn’t just about money; it’s about preferences of all kinds.  As most homeowners would tell you, there are a lot of things other than resale value that he or she wants from land use law.  The homeowner probably wants from government good schools, good roads, easy traffic, well-maintained parks, low crime, and other attributes of a pleasant community.  In truly private company, the homeowner might even tell you that he or she prefers a certain socioeconomic or racial makeup of the community, which may well be affected by land use law.  Many of these attributes indirectly affect property resale values, of course, but most are preferred for their own sake. 
   In defending restrictive lands use laws, local governments know that the tried and true defense of “maintaining property values” usually makes for a solid defense.  But let’s not forget that the other, more direct issues, are probably foremost in the minds of many property owners when they vote and make demands of local land use law.

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March 10, 2009 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Supply and demand, and revisiting the land use law causes of the housing bubble …

   What role does land use regulation have in determining housing prices?  In 2005, I published a piece in the Urban Lawyer (“The Three Levels of Ownership,” 37 Urb. Law. 385), which relied on economic studies that, as I put it, “place[d] much of the blame [for high prices] squarely at the feet of laws restricting new housing construction.”  By limiting supply through laws to protect the environment, foster low density, and preserve community and character, land use laws had driven up housing prices, the argument went.  I quoted a study that chided other analysts for focusing too much on the demand side and not enough on the supply side.   
House     Nearly four years later, I conclude that my comments were overstatements, at best.  In 2009, our news is filed with stories about how the housing bubble was caused primarily by high demand, which was fed in turn by easy credit, subprime loans, and the irrational exuberance of buyers who felt that housing prices would continue to rise forever.  Once these unsustainable forces were popped, housing prices stalled and then fell.  And one of the weirdest results is that the ability of a modest-income family to buy a house may have become tougher in some instances because credit is so much tighter.  I acknowledge my errors, and I wish I had emphasized more strongly in my piece the observation that the housing boom of 1998-2005 did not necessarily coincide with an era of tougher land use regulations or tighter supply.   
     What can we learn from such “overstatements”?  In 2005, in analyzing applications of some of the models, I concluded that “the politics of land use are often messy and unpredictable and do not always fit economic models.”  Perhaps a lesson from our current observations is that economics of supply and demand is equally complicated, and that pat, one-directional answers are likely to be oversimplifications …      

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March 5, 2009 | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Turn off that sprinkler! … pretty please …

Lawn    Will the American public accept a new level of environmental regulation of their home lives?  At the Public Interest Environmental Conference at the University of Florida last week, one of the most interesting talks was given by Dr. Pierce Jones of UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, who offered compelling scientific evidence that could support a ban on lawn irrigation in a state such as Florida.  Like California, Florida has experienced a population boom over the past half-century, a growth in natural uses for water, and a recent drought, all of which have placed nearly impossible demands on the drinking water supply. In both states, water shortages are causing local governments to deny applications for new residential developments.  But unlike in California, where agriculture soaks up most of the water, in many Florida counties it is residential use that takes a disproportionate share.  For many Florida households, watering the grass (which otherwise would wilt in the intense sun and sandy soils, despite decent rainfall) drains as much water as all indoor uses.  Replacing grass with less thirsty plants and landscaping could save colossal amounts of precious water.  It all makes sense. 
    So where are the politicians arguing for compulsory restrictions?  As the nation ponders drastic steps such as a carbon tax and huge subsidies for fuel-efficient cars, why doesn’t government put serious pressure on citizens to take simple but effective steps such as using a programmable thermostat or pulling out their lawn irrigation systems?  It is because politicians in most places know that the bulk of citizens still aren’t ready for government to tell them how to live their lives at home, even for steps that seem both reasonable and socially responsible? 

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March 4, 2009 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, March 2, 2009

The suburban ideal of ... the great university campus …

Uflorida    I spent last Friday on a typical American public university campus: the University of Florida in Gainesville.  As I wandered around the enormous acreage –- in Europe it would be considered a middling sized country –- I pondered how our big college campuses reflect our American land use preferences.  Unlike European universities, which are often dropped into dense cities like businesses, big American universities typically are isolated and landscaped, like suburban planned developments.  The residences at the UF are relatively low density (there are few high-rises at Gainesville) and are nestled (or is the word “sprawled”?) in an idyllic campus of lawns, gardens (the dogwoods and azaleas were out in north Florida in late February), woods, and wetlands.  It seemed like an ideal planned suburban community –- or perhaps a retirement resort, considering all of the entertainment and recreational options enjoyed by today’s student.  And the new urbanist notion of “multiple use” appears to have no meaning on the campus: I lost track of the number of impressive stadiums –- not fields, but actual stadiums –-  specially dedicated for every conceivable sport.  (Why argue with success? UF boosters might respond, citing their frequent athletic championships).
   But suburban paradise comes with a cost, we know.  To shuttle its 50,000 students around the small country, the university runs a fleet of buses the size of which one could invade Russia with; unlike at my state university way back when, UF students appear actually to ride the buses. And, in a novelty to me, hundreds (thousands?) of Florida students ride scooters across the campus.  In this way, they do resemble European college kids, except that in Rome or Berlin a student rides her scooter from one end of the city to the urban university, while in Gainesville it is simply to get from one end of campus to the other –- for example, from the pleasant “exurban” new dorms beyond the sports stadiums to the humanities classrooms in the 1920s collegiate Gothic “downtown.” 
   These observations raise an intriguing question.  Do our university campuses resemble planned suburbs because the architects draw from suburban experiences?  Or do our suburbs copy the green and pleasant college campuses that form some of the fondest memories of our designers, architects, and suburban homeowners?  Or, most likely, do both reflect a commonly shared land use ideal that is deeply ingrained in the American psyche?

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March 2, 2009 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)