Planners have zoned 97% of my home state of Oregon as “rural.” In the least restrictive of the rural zones, you cannot build a house on your own land unless you own at least 80 acres, you actually farm it, and you actually grossed (depending on soil productivity) at least $40,000 to $80,000 a year from farming it in two of the last three years. Since they passed these rules in 1993, planners are proud that only about 100 homes per year have been built in these zones.
Meanwhile, planners have drawn urban-growth boundaries around every city in the state — boundaries encompassing less than 1.5% of its land. (The remaining 1.5% is zoned for five- to ten-acre lot sizes.) To keep the cities from “sprawling,” planners in several cities have rezoned neighborhoods of single-family homes for apartments or rowhouses. The zoning is so strict that if your house in one of these neighborhoods burns down, you are not allowed to rebuild it: you can only build an apartment, rowhouse, or whatever meets the minimum density of the zone.
Oregon planners have become so intrusive that they actually told a Portland church that it could have no more than 70 people worship at one time in its 400-seat sanctuary. Allowing more people to use the church, the planners said, would cause too much traffic congestion. Although this ruling was eventually overturned, another church in Oregon applied for a permit to expand and was told it could do so only if it promised
to have no more than five weddings or funerals a year.
These stories are examples of policies that are variously referred to as smart growth, compact cities, new urbanism, and growth management. I bring such stories up in order to alert readers about just what is at stake in debates over urban planning and private property rights. The danger today is that the Obama administration and key members of Congress are
intent upon extending Oregon-style rules nationwide.
At the present time, fewer than a dozen states — including California, Florida, Hawaii, Maryland, New Jersey, Washington, and several states in New England — have rules as strict as Oregon’s. In many cases, nearby states have served as “relief valves” as people and jobs have migrated to less- regulated areas. But if the Obama administration has its way,
there will be no more relief valves.
In the 1960s, when Hawaii became the first state to pass a
growth-management law, planners argued that land-use regulation was needed to save farms and open spaces. Yet urban areas (agglomerations of 2,500 or more people) cover less than 3% of all land in the United States, and less than 6% of all land in Hawaii. This hardly makes it seem as if urban sprawl were paving over the country.
Soon after Hawaii passed its land-use law, the California legislature passed an innocuous-sounding bill that became the state’s de facto land-use law. Responding to controversies over annexations, the law created “local area formation commissions,” or LAFCos, for every county. The commissions
Oregon planners told a Portland church that it could have no more than 70 people worship at one time in its 400-seat sanctuary.
were given the power to approve or veto all annexations and new city incorporations, as well as the formation of special service districts, such as sewer and water districts, that would be necessary for large-scale developments outside of city li its. Each county LAFCo was run by a board consisting of two representatives of every city in the county.
The cities soon realized they could force all development (and future property taxes) to stay within their boundaries by vetoing all annexations, incorporations, and service districts. In 1970, the state passed the California Environmental Quality Act, which required an expensive and time-consuming environmental impact report for every government action, including annexations and service districts. This meant that, even if a LAFCo was inclined to allow an expansion of urban development, it would take developers years and millions of dollars before the expansion could begin.
LAFCos have made California’s population the most concentrated in the nation, with 95% of the people crammed into 5% of the state’s land area. California and Hawaii also have the nation’s least-affordable housing. In 2000, the California legislature formally mandated that the LAFCos do what most of them had already been doing, which was to impose smart- growth policies on their cities.
In the energy- and pollution-conscious ’70s, when Oregon and Vermont passed their land-use laws, planners argued that regulation was needed to reduce gasoline consumption and air pollution. Denser cities and more transit, they claimed, would lead people to drive less. Since 1970, auto-related air pollution has declined by two-thirds — not because of less driving (driving actually tripled), but because people bought cleaner and more fuel-efficient cars.
Commuting expert Alan Pisarski argues (ITE Journal, Jan. 2009) that efforts to reduce driving may actually have been counterproductive to environmental goals. One of the main tools planners use to discourage driving is increased traffic congestion. “Congestion Is Our Friend” proclaims the title of an article by Florida planner Dom Nozzi (Gainesville Sun, Feb. 10, 2008). Yet cars waste fuel and pollute more in congested traffic.
In the 1980s and ’90s, New Urban advocates argued that denser neighborhoods had a stronger sense of community. Studies have found, however, that residents of suburbs actually have more social interactions than those in denser cities.
Even the data in Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone” (2000), which promoted the notion that Americans were losing their sense of community, showed that suburbanites had higher social participation rates than residents of dense cities.
In the early 2000s, smart-growth supporters jumped on the obesity issue by claiming that suburbs make people fat. In a classic example of junk science, compact-city advocates published a study in a peer-reviewed medical journal find- ing that low-density development “had small but significant [meaning nonrandom] associations” with obesity. As any statistics student knows, correlation does not prove causation, yet a group called Smart Growth America (whose staff members and associates wrote the journal article) trumpeted that this proved that sprawl causes obesity.
In fact, the correlations between sprawl and obesity were almost vanishingly small. The study found, for example, that about 2% more people in low-density Atlanta are obese than in high-density San Francisco. More objective studies have found “no evidence that urban sprawl causes obesity.” In fact, these studies say, Smart Growth America confused cause and effect: “individuals who are more likely to be obese choose to live in more sprawling neighborhoods.” (There’s a research report about this: “Fat City” , by Jean Eid et al., published by the Centre for Economic Policy Research.)
Today, planners argue that greenhouse gas reduction targets require that we employ land-use policies to force people to reduce their driving. Improvements in “vehicle and fuel technology alone” will not be sufficient for transportation to “do its fair share to meet” targets, argues “Growing Cooler,” a 2008 report from the Urban Land Institute. Cities must therefore mandate “compact development” while they provide “expanded transportation alternatives,” meaning such things as bike paths and light rail.
While I am personally a skeptic regarding climate change, I am not a climatologist, so the question I ask is, “If we are to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, what is the most cost-effective way of doing so?” Even if you accept that the United States needs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, land-use regulation is an extraordinarily indirect and expensive way of reaching any targets.
Compact-development advocates such as the Urban Land Institute assume that, if we need to reduce emissions by 50%, then transport’s “fair share” is also a 50% reduction. But analyses by McKinsey & Co., and others, show that additional sectors of the economy, such as electricity production, can reduce their emissions at a much lower cost than transport. Cost-effective efforts at reducing emissions would focus on these sectors.
The Urban Land Institute underestimates our ability to reduce emissions by using new technologies and fuels. Economists at MIT estimate that, responding to markets alone, new cars built in 2030 will get about 42 miles per gallon. Modest government rules or incentives encouraging lighter-weight cars, hybrids, and diesel instead of gasoline, could double this to 85 miles per gallon. This will significantly reduce emissions even given increases in driving between now and 2030.
Further, the Urban Land Institute greatly overestimates the effects of land-use changes on driving. “Growing Cooler” (2008), which was written by planners who supported compact development before global warming was a major issue, optimistically projected that rules requiring 60% of all new urban development to be more compact would reduce 2030 carbon dioxide outputs by 79 million tons (about 1.3% of America’s current human-caused outputs). But “Moving Cooler” (2009), a later report written by independent consult- ing firm Cambridge Systematics, concluded that such rules would reduce CO2 outputs by less than 22 million tons.
Even the projections in “Moving Cooler” may be overes- timated. Changes in transportation technology have had pro- found effects on land-use patterns. Urban densities declined as streetcars replaced walking and autos replaced streetcars. But economists and planners have long debated whether the reverse is true; that is, whether increasing densities could change people’s transport choices. A review of the plan- ning literature by University of California economist David Brownstone concluded that there is a “statistically significant link” between urban design and driving — but that “the size of this link is too small to be useful” for controlling green- house gas emissions.
If the benefits of compact development are small, the costs are high. Even more than congestion, the biggest cost is in housing and other development. Compact-city policies cre- ate artificial land shortages, driving up the cost of housing and all other urban development. The kind of housing most Americans say they prefer — single-family homes on a large lot — becomes particularly expensive. Land-use restraints lead to housing bubbles and crashes that can have devastat- ing effects on local and national economies.
Urban planners respond that tastes are changing and soon far fewer Americans will want to live in single-family homes. As baby boomers become empty nesters and other family sizes shrink, more people will want to live in condos and apartments in urban centers where they can be close to urban services.
This argument has been promoted especially by University of Utah planning professor Arthur Nelson, who has been widely quoted for claiming that by 2025 the United States will have a surplus of 22 million suburban homes that no one will want to live in. “The American suburb as we know it is dying,”
If your farm provides others with scenic views, they can “protect their liberties” by altering your property rights to keep you from developing it.
says Time magazine (March 12, 2009), and will become “the next slums,” says Atlantic Monthly (March 2008), both citing a paper Nelson wrote in 2006.
This is complete and utter nonsense. Nelson’s so-called research is merely wishful thinking. “Based on interpreta- tions of surveys” reported by another planner, Dowell Myers, Nelson’s paper concluded that only 25% of Americans want to live in a single-family home with a large yard, while 37% want small yards (less than one-sixth of an acre) and the remaining
But Myers’ paper does not support Nelson’s conclusions. Instead, it reports survey after survey showing that 75 to 85% of Americans want a single-family home with a yard. In a lit- tle-reported response to Nelson’s paper, Myers stated that “Nelson and others have placed too great an emphasis on changing preferences as the driver of changing development patterns” and found “scant evidence of any net shift of total or elderly population toward central cities.”
Nelson’s idea is typical of the rationale that planners use, especially when communicating with one another. Americans really want to live in dense cities, not sprawling suburbs, they tell themselves. Of course, they can’t rely on the market to produce such dense cities, because greedy developers would rather build low-density suburbs, and zoning ordinances written by the very same planners (or their predecessors) somehow mandate these suburbs. Rather than simply bring- ing zoning to an end, planners want to impose even more pre- scriptions, aimed at forcing high-density development.
Nor do planners see any contradictions between such pre- scriptive zoning and property rights. Private property is “an evolving, organic institution with ownership rights that have varied greatly from era to era,” argues land-use attorney Eric Freyfogle in “The Land We Share” (2003), a book promoted by the American Planning Association. Freyfogle is eager to explore “the vast potential for further change of this institu- tion,” meaning restrictions on private property for the social good. Borrowing the language of property rights activists, Freyfogle adds, “When property rights trump conservation laws, they curtail the positive liberties of the majority.” In other words, if your farm provides others with scenic views, they can “protect their liberties” by altering your property rights to keep you from developing it.
Until recently, land-use rules were strictly a state and local phenomenon. During the Clinton administration, the Environmental Protection Agency promoted smart growth by donating millions of dollars to nonprofit advocacy groups to spread anti-auto propaganda around the nation. When Republicans in Congress shut that program down, Democrats inserted a provision in the 1998 transportation bill authoriz- ing the Department of Transportation to make grants to such nonprofit groups. But aside from promoting propaganda, the federal government did not try to impose smart growth on states that did not want it.
That changed with the Obama administration, which along with Democrats in Congress has embraced such social engineering policies. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood admits that the administration’s goal is to “coerce people out of their cars.” One way they are attempting to achieve this goal is by ordering all metropolitan areas to do compact-city planning over the next five years.
Under a 1965 law, all such areas — agglomerations of 50,000 or more people — are required to have metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) that deal with transportation and housing issues. Originally, these organizations existed merely to ease federal grantmaking programs: instead of reviewing grant proposals submitted by 10,000 or more cit- ies and counties, federal transportation and housing agencies would only have to review submissions from a few hundred MPOs — about 225 in 1965, about 425 today.
Inevitably, however, many of these MPOs gained the power to tell local cities what to do. California law specifi- cally directs MPOs to promote compact development in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The MPO for the Twin Cities threatened to deny local suburbs their share of federal funds if they did not impose density targets set by planners.
In March, 2009, Secretary LaHood and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan agreed to require “every major metropolitan area in the country [to] conduct integrated housing, transportation, and land use planning and investment in the next four years.” In effect, all MPOs will be required to do what those in California, Oregon, and the Twin Cities have done in the past few decades.
The new requirements do not mention the terms “den- sity” or “compact cities.” But they include all the familiar euphemisms that have been used to disguise densification programs, such as “sustainability” (meaning anti-automobile policies), “shorter travel times” (meaning denser communi- ties), and “more choices for affordable housing” (meaning high-density housing).
Similar language can be found in a transportation bill pro- posed by Representative James Oberstar (D-MN), who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Congress passes such a bill about every six years to dictate how federal gas taxes and other highway user fees will be spent. Under legislation first passed in 1956, all such user fees were dedicated to highways, but starting in 1982 Congress diverted increasing shares of these fees to transit.
The bill passed in 2005 dedicated 15.5% of highway fees to transit and put another 15% in “flexible” funds that could be spent on either highways or transit. In practice, about a third of those flexible funds was spent on transit; that, and the funds specifically designated to transit, added up to a total of a little more than 20% of highway revenues.
Oberstar’s proposed bill (which won’t be acted on until 2011 at the earliest) dedicates 20% of highway fees to transit, 20% to highways, and puts most of the remainder in flexible funds. This means that some metropolitan areas could spend nearly 80% of their federal funds on transit.
The bill also defines “sustainable transportation” as “pub- lic transit, walking, and cycling.” In 2008, when all subsidies are counted, public transit cost four times as much, consumed about as much energy, and emitted about as much pollution per passenger mile as auto driving. By 2025, automobiles are projected to be more energy efficient and cleaner than the nation’s most efficient transit systems. Yet autos will be branded by law as “unsustainable” and thus ineligible for cer- tain kinds of federal funding.
As if that weren’t enough, the bill creates an “Office of Livability” within the Department of Transportation whose goal will be to promote transit and other so-called sustainable transportation by mandating compact development in metro- politan areas throughout the country.
Only about 2% of U.S. land is in urbanized areas of 50,000 or more, so people living in the 30 or so states that have no statewide land-use planning laws can escape metropolitan- area mandates by moving outside such areas. Some states, such as Texas, do not even allow counties to zone. But to con- tain as many people as possible within urban areas, the bill encourages states to create rural planning organizations, so that every state would be in danger of the same kinds of rules that Oregon has imposed on rural areas.
Despite its significant flaws, years of relentless anti-auto and antisuburb propaganda have made smart growth the dominant paradigm in DC. The healthcare law that Congress just passed, for example, included a fund to give cities incen- tives to promote compact development in order to reduce obesity and other chronic diseases. Significantly, a share of this fund will go to nonprofit organizations that will no doubt use the money to lobby for more land-use regulation.
Little good will result from these incentives and mandates. Contrary to the claims of its advocates, smart growth will not save scarce open space, cure obesity, give people a sense of community, or clean the air. It will make housing less afford- able, roads more congested, taxes higher, and property rights weaker. We can only hope that the backlash against the recent healthcare bill continues, and prevents Congress from pass- ing an even more pervasive piece of social engineering in the 2011 transportation bill.