Vanishing Automobile update #34

Smart Growth Doesn't Just Threaten Urban Areas

Recent reports from smart-growth groups have shown that their goals are not limited to reshaping American urban areas. They also want to impose their high-density, mixed-use visions on small towns while they freeze development in rural areas.

The most important report is called Smart Growth at the Frontier, which was published by the Northeast-Midwest Institute. Despite the name, the institute is located in Washington, DC. The report, which was funded by the Environmental Protection Agency, urges that small towns and rural counties adopt all the usual smart-growth prescriptions, including "pedestrian-friendly" (i.e., auto-hostile) design in commercial areas, "dense, mixed-use development" in residential areas, and severe restrictions on development in rural areas.

"Residential development is the primary threat to rural landscapes," worries the report. It frets that "the highest rates of population growth are occurring at the edges of metropolitan areas." This is, in fact, practically a tautology, since existing populations on urban fringes are by definition low, so any growth is a high rate.

To counter this growth, one of the report's most important recommendations is that land on the urban fringe be zoned for cluster development. Typically, such land is currently zoned for 10-acre lot sizes. The owner of a 200-acre parcel can thus subdivide into twenty 10-acre lots. Cluster zoning would require instead that the parcel be subdivided into twenty quarter-acre or smaller lots, and the remaining 95+ acres be set aside, probably through permanent conservation easements, as open space.

Cluster developments can be very attractive. But cluster zoning carries with it potentially huge social costs. First, it excludes the option of larger lot ownership for those who prefer such lots. In the same way that auto-opponents are demonizing SUVs, smart-growth advocates want to make ownership of large lots as socially reprehensible as cigarette smoking has become.

More important in growing urban areas, cluster development closes the future option for more development when such development is appropriate. Whereas 10-acre lots in an area zoned for 10 acres can be subdivided on rezoning, areas set aside as permanent conservation easements cannot.

An urban area that is surrounded by cluster zoning will thus end up with an effective greenbelt that limits expansion. The result will be rapidly inflating land prices and unaffordable housing. The cluster developments will become the exclusive homes of the rich, while the middle- and lower-classes are packed into high-density, open-space-poor areas of the city. As shown on pp. 442-443 of the Vanishing Auto, this is in fact what is happening in San Diego. Moreover, since the open space in the cluster developments remains private, it may be closed to public use, which would give some people a surplus of open space while imposing shortages on everyone else.

In an area that is already zoned for 10-acre lots, rezoning for clusters may be relatively non-controversial because the landowners get to subdivide either way. But it would be better not to have any zoning at all. Then developers could do cluster developments if there was a market for it, 10-acre lots if there was a market for it, or other marketable developments.

Smart Growth at the Frontier also worries that small farmers are threatened by development of the farms around them. Without any documentation, the report speculates that this leads "farm equipment suppliers and processing facilities" to go "out of business, thus eliminating services for the farms left behind."

This cute argument justifies all sorts of policies to "protect" farmers. These include restrictions on development, of course, as well as subsidies to farmers and "right-to-farm" laws that allow farmers to pollute without having to worry about challenges from exurbanites who oppose pollution -- on the condition that the farmers promise to continue polluting, um, farming forever.

Another program lauded by the report is transferrable development rights (TDRs). Under TDRs, rural areas are protected from development and urban areas are redeveloped to higher densities without rezoning. Instead, urban redevelopers are allowed to buy higher density zoning by paying rural landowners to not develop their land. The result may be protection of open space, but urban residents suffer all the costs of higher densities including congestion, infrastructure costs, and lack of urban open space. The optional tour preceding the Preserving the American Dream conference will look at some of the results of a TDR program in Montgomery County, Maryland.

Smart Growth at the Frontier praises numerous examples of planners imposing their wisdom on landowners and developers. One recent plan singled out for acclaim is that for Loudoun County, Virginia, which is on the fringe of the Washington, DC, metropolitan area.

Loudoun County planners divided the county into three basic zones: suburban, transition, and rural. The suburban zone is slated for higher density development, the transition zone for cluster development, and development is severely restricted in the rural zone. One of the speakers at the Preserving the American Dream conference will talk about the drawbacks to this plan and efforts by local residents to stop it.

Urban and rural land uses are extremely diverse and complex. Planners who think they can collapse these uses into three, or even thirty, categories are guilty of oversimplification. They are making the same mistake as the foresters who seek to "simplify" forest ecosystems by replacing diverse forests with monocultures.

Another recent report provides revealing evidence of the true smart-growth agenda. Smart Links: Turning Conservation Dollars into Smart Growth Opportunities, published by the Environmental Law Institute, proposes to use the popularity of public funding for open space to promote smart growth.

Everyone loves open space. To most urban residents, "open space" means city parks. If they think about it, they realize that their backyards also contribute to open space. Large yards also contribute to diverse wildlife habitat and healthy watersheds. But smart-growth goals of high-density housing are incompatible with this form of open space.

When people vote for open space funding, they are not voting to give up their yards. Yet Smart Links proposes that the two be tied together. Specifically, the report urges federal and state distributors of open space funds to only give money to local governments that have adopted and implemented "smart growth development techniques on lands in the jurisdiction that are not slated for conservation."

City and county officials are highly susceptible to such extortion. They'll ask their constituents, "Do you want to get open space funds from the federal government?" If the answer is "yes," they'll consider it a mandate for high-density, mixed-use zoning.

Rural residents have opposed restrictive zoning for decades, but have received little support from urban residents who like the idea of protecting open space. Smart growth shows that planning has costs for both urban and rural residents, and thus creates an opportunity for urban-rural coalitions of opponents to such policies.

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