Presentation on Land Use Prepared for the GRTA Land Development Committee

By Benita Dodd                                                                                                        

The Georgia Public Policy Foundation appreciates GRTA’s invitation to share our views on land use with the Land Development Committee today. The Foundation is an independent think tank that proposed market-oriented approaches to public policy issues.

The Foundation is a signatory to the Lone Mountain Compact, a philosophically compatible document outlining Principles for Preserving Freedom and Livability in America’s Cities and Suburbs. The three most important principles, to our thinking, are first, that absent a material threat to other individuals or the community, people should be allowed to live and work where and how they like. Second, that local planning procedures and tools should incorporate private property rights as a fundamental element of development control. Third, that communities should allow a diversity in neighborhood design, as desired by the market.

As commonsense as these three principles are, they can be endangered by overregulation and overreaching in a community. In fact, one of the issues of concern at the Foundation is what we consider the potential for abuse of the power of eminent domain – the power to take private property for so-called public use – that has been granted in Georgia to so many state and local agencies, authorities and commissions. The Institute for Justice, which has documented numerous cases of abuse of eminent domain around the nation, has not seen this trend in Georgia. But thousands of property owners around the state are potentially at risk of a costly legal battle or losing their property or lease to some agency that wants a convention center or some municipality that considers a mall to be “public use.”

When it comes to land use, the Foundation welcomes market-driven diversity. The trends increasingly show that there is a demand for a variety of housing choices, from traditional subdivisions to mixed-use developments to conservation subdivisions to in-town lofts to infill and rehabilitation of brownfields to transit-oriented development. Some ideas have been slower to catch on than others; some are less affordable than others, and some – like the baby-boomer-oriented ranch-style cluster housing that is easier on empty-nesters and their aging knees – are a no-brainer and selling faster than they’re built.

All these alternatives have a place in the marketplace of ideas, if only government would allow the market the flexibility to develop them.

For example, Ridenour, a $350 million mixed-use development in Cobb County, was approved as a “village community.” Even so, according to Tad Leithead, whose company was partnering in the development, developers still had to get more than 200 zoning variances. Such delays and the related costs deprive all but the deepest pockets of the incentive to innovate. The problem is that restrictive local ordinances designed originally to protect a community often hinder the kind of out-of-the-box thinking that promotes variety in choices. Why don’t we see more granny flats? Because of the single-family residential zoning restrictions. Why don’t we see more pedestrian-friendly communities? Because of setback restrictions. Why don’t we see more conservation subdivisions? Because of density restrictions.

There’s no denying that the American dream, by and large, is the haven that is the traditional subdivision with its single entrance; its houses boasting a two-car garage and half-acre lots on cul-de-sacs that discourage through traffic and keep children safe. That home is their very own piece of green space. A survey by the National Association of Homebuilders and National Association of Realtors found that 82 percent of respondents preferred to live in the suburbs. Sixty-seven percent of Georgia homes are single-unit structures; 21 percent are multi-unit and 12 percent are mobile homes.

The spreading nature of metro Atlanta’s growth, thanks to the absence of natural boundaries, has been termed sprawl. The region’s congestion and its struggle with federal air quality and water quality standards are cited as the unwelcome products of this sprawl. For some, that signals the need to contain such sprawl through such tools as urban growth boundaries, tougher ordinances and greater restrictions on where development can occur.

Growth and development aren’t that simple. People are drawn to the metro area because of the opportunities of this economic engine, and they’re drawn by our quality of life. And when they choose where to live, they consider numerous issues, not just how close the house is to the interstate, their jobs or the public transit system. Such issues as cost, taxes, facilities, utilities, zoning, family size, schools, cultural assimilation and upward mobility all can play a role. Better schools in urban areas, for example, can encourage families to stay intown instead of moving to the suburbs. But more affordable housing away in the suburbs encourages them to move there.

They come ready to drive. They complain about traffic, yet automobiles are the vastly preferred mode of transportation in Georgia because of the flexibility that driving allows. They’ll take transit, according to an ARC study, only if it’s cheap, fast and gets them where they need to be. The 2002 American Community Survey reports that 81 percent of Georgians drove to work alone in 2002. Eleven percent carpooled, 3 percent took public transportation and 2 percent used other means. The average commute time was 27 minutes, according to the ACS.

Congestion is worsening as more people arrive, but assuming that the pattern of development will continue unchanged and unchecked is shortsighted. Development patterns will adapt and evolve according to demand. Governor Sonny Perdue has committed to efficient, cost-effective transportation solutions and congestion relief. Additionally, virtual offices, telecommuting and flexible hours will help relieve traffic. The graying of Georgia will increase the demand for live-work-play pedestrian-friendly communities, as more baby boomers become senior citizens and retirees are reluctant to travel far. Company satellite offices will distribute the commuter load, too.

We don’t believe that restricting choice is the answer; rather, the Foundation believes that we should remove barriers to choices, then require that people pay full price for the options they choose and leave the regulations as close to the affected community as possible.

I talked to Mayor Ken Steele of Fayetteville this week. I don’t have to tell you how proud he is of the Villages of Lafayette, a mixed-use development that is taking shape on a 110-acre lot off the courthouse square. The mayor told me how crafting a redevelopment ordinance gave a developer the incentive to renovate a 1960s apartment complex into condos: doubling the density from eight to 16 units per acre made the project economically feasible. He also told me that Fayetteville requires developers to pay the full cost of infrastructure: There is no subsidizing of sewers, roads, curb cuts or traffic signals. Obviously, developers pass on the cost to homebuyers, who then must consider whether they can afford the full cost of their lifestyle choice. Fayetteville is also in the process of developing a stormwater utility to charge residences and business for the runoff from impervious surfaces.

These are the principles of growth and development that the Foundation believes can support a thriving, prosperous community and allow it to grow in a sustainable manner.

I’d like to introduce Steven Hayward, an adjunct scholar with the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. Steven is the F.K. Weyerhaueser Fellow in Law and Economics at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, where he researches a broad array of environmental issues. He writes AEI’s regular newsletter, Environmental Policy Outlook, and is the principal author of the annual Index of Leading Environmental Indicators. He has testified about urban sprawl issues before the United States Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and several state legislatures; he was featured in the PBS documentary “Urbanism, Suburbanism and the Good Life.”

Steve holds a PhD in American Studies and an M.A. in Government from Claremont Graduate University in California. He has written for National Review, the Weekly Standard, The Public Interest and Policy Review, and his newspaper articles have appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Baltimore Sun, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Chicago Tribune and dozens of other daily newspapers. He was the principal author of the Lone Mountain Compact, a list of growth management principles endorsed by more than 200 scholars and policy analysts in 2000, and he is currently working on a book to be titled “The Unheavenly Suburb: The Nature and Future of the Urban Sprawl Controversy.”

Principles for Livable Cities:

  1. The most fundamental principle is that, absent a material threat to other individuals or the community, people should be allowed to live and work where and how they like.
  2. Prescriptive, centralized plans that attempt to determine the detailed outcome of community form and function should be avoided. Such “comprehensive” plans interfere with the dynamic, adaptive, and evolutionary nature of neighborhoods and cities.
  3. Densities and land uses should be market driven, not plan driven. Proposals to supersede market-driven land use decisions by centrally directed decisions are vulnerable to the same kind of perverse consequences as any other kind of centrally planned resource allocation decisions, and show little awareness of what such a system would have to accomplish even to equal the market in effectiveness.
  4. Communities should allow a diversity in neighborhood design, as desired by the market. Planning and zoning codes and building regulations should allow for neotraditional neighborhood design, historic neighborhood renovation and conversion, and other mixed-use development and the more decentralized development forms of recent years.
  5. Decisions about neighborhood development should be decentralized as far as possible. Local neighborhood associations and private covenants are superior to centralized or regional government planning agencies.
  6. Local planning procedures and tools should incorporate private property rights as a fundamental element of development control. Problems of incompatible or conflicting land uses will be better resolved through the revival of common law principles of nuisance than through zoning regulations which tend to be rigid and inefficient.
  7. All growth management policies should be evaluated according to their cost of living and “burden-shifting” effects. Urban growth boundaries, minimum lot sizes, restrictions on housing development, restrictions on commercial development, and other limits on freely functioning land markets that increase the burdens on lower income groups must be rejected.
  8. Market-oriented transportation strategies should be employed, such as peak period road pricing, HOT lanes, toll roads, and de-monopolized mass transit. Monopoly public transit schemes, especially fixed rail transit that lacks the flexibility to adapt to the changing destinations of a dynamic, decentralized metropolis, should be viewed skeptically.
  9. The rights of present residents should not supersede those of future residents. Planners, citizens, and local officials should recognize that “efficient” land use must include consideration for household and consumer wants, preferences, and desires. Thus, growth controls and land-use planning must consider the desires of future residents and generations, not solely current residents.
  10. Planning decisions should be based upon facts, not perceptions. A number of the concerns raised in the “sprawl” debate are based upon false perceptions. The use of good data in public policy is crucial to the continued progress of American cities and the social advance of all its citizens.

Benita M. Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation and leads its Environmental Initiative. The Foundation is an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.

© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (February 11, 2004). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and her affiliations are cited.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *