Friday, April 29, 2005

It's Simple - Just Stop Sprawl

A few days ago I read an opinion piece by Bonnie Erbe, host of the PBS TV show "To The Contrary," titled Suburban Sprawl Eats More Than Its Share of Taxes.

I keep coming back to it in my mind, as she made some good points, but she also grossly oversimplified the issue (which, by the way, I think most anti-sprawl advocates do.) It is not a simple, one solution issue, but is far more complex and reaches deep into our social make=up.

Erbe writes, "Too many Americans buy into the common presumption that suburban sprawl is a revenue generator for local government." She points out s couple of studies that show how much more it costs to service suburban residential development than what they produce in taxe revenue.

From my experience, that's not news to hardly anyone. Most people, including the hard-line large lot advocates, seem to recognize that residential development does not produce enough tax revenue to pay for all the services residents require, especially if you throw in the cost of schools.

The studies Erbe points to indicate that commercial and agricultural use of land are far and away positive generators of revenue. What that seems to argue is that suburban communities should go after commercial development (which they do, and which is just as big a sprawl generator as allowing lots of low density residential development), or keep all the farmland they can and not allow development at all.

What I think Erbe is really advocating, however, is "smart growth" -- that is, build new residential in existing developed areas and not out on the greenfields.

Again, I think this is a great idea, but an oversimplification and a failure to recognize that pushing such development exclusively has consequences of its own. Take a look at the piece by Timothy Egan in the March 24 issue of the New York Times, where he points out that such strategies seem to have caused the cost of housing to go up so much in such areas that young families and low-income individuals cannot afford them.

There have also been numerous accounts lately of how everyone thinks smart growth in Maryland (ostensibly the birth place of the concept) is a great idea, but no one wants to do it. See Paper by Gerrit-Jan Knaap of the University of Maryland, and an article in the Washington Post for a couple of examples.

For my money, it seems we need to pursue a variety of approaches to growth. Taking on only one will bring with it a whole new set of problems that will need to be addressed.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Beer and Sunday Openings in Cedar Hills

An interesting little firestorm has erupted over the withdrawal of Smith's from a development proposal in the city of Cedar Hills in Utah County. See the Provo Daily Herald's commentary In our view: Morality war in Cedar Hills :: The Daily Herald, Provo Utah

It is not uncommon to have small groups arise in communities opposed to certain development proposals, but they generally do not carry the day because they are just that, small groups. However, sometimes they become so loud, they overshadow the majority and gain a disproportionate role in the review process (remember the court case on public clamor?)

In this case, Smith's withdrew of its own accord, raising some interesting questions about what influence such groups can have. It also sparks the debate about what is appropriate to allow in a community, and what is not, and who gets to decide? Of course, this case is getting mixed up in moral and religious overtones, which makes it even more complicated.

Who said we work in a boring profession?

Conservation and Economic Development

Yesterday I was invited to participate in a discussion with the Quality Growth Commission on how land conservation can also enhance economic development, and what the relationship might be between the two. Dan Lofgren, chair of the QGC, has been quite interested in this topic for some time, and hoped to explore this relationship and come up with some work items for the Commission for the coming year. Also invited were a number of others, including Brenda Scheer and Soren Simonsen.

It was a great discussion. Of course, one of the main links between the two that was discussed was quality of life, that by making this a better and more pleasant place to live, business owners would also want to be here, as would potential future employees. But such factors are not generally direct links to cause and effect. No company that I've worked with has as an explicit criterion for relocation or expansion, whether the area preserves land. But when those CEOs drive around the area and see what it's like as a place to live, it does play a part.

The tension between land conservation and development was also discussed, noting that it might be possible to preserve too much land, limiting developable areas and thus raising costs (see earlier blog post on this topic). But the group generally agreed that in Utah, such a relatively small amount of money is being put into land conservation that it will have virtually no effect on the overall market.

Because the amount of money being put toward conservation in Utah is so small, part of the discussion turned on what other ways there might be to accomplish preservation of critical areas. Dave Allen from Summit County and a member of the QGC, said so many people think that the way to preserve land and rural lifestyle is to only allow development on 1-acre or 5-acre lots, when in reality this just eats up land into development faster, and locks larger chunks away from public use. He made a great statement, saying that we needed to educate our planning commissioners, elected officials, and the public that perhaps the better way to develop would be to allow (maybe even require?) greater densities in areas where we do allow development, and keep development out altogether in areas we want preserved.

Flint Richards, the QGC member representing the Utah Farm Bureau, picked up on the comment and said that there ought to be a way to allow for the landowner whose land is to be preserved to share in the greater value that is created for the landowner whose property is thus more densely developed. I jumped into the discussion at that point and said there is a technique that does just that -- Transfer of Development Rights (TDRs). The Commission seemed enthusiastic about the possiblities of such a tool, and included it on their list of potential future work items to move forward on.

I can't tell you how many times throughout my career as a planner where the residents come in to the planning commission or council meeting and say, "We moved here because we liked the rural atmosphere so much. We want to keep that, so we think you should only approve 1-acre (or 5-acre, or whatever) minimum lot sizes for development." I have talked myself blue in the face trying to explain that such a standard does not preserve rural (or natural) character, it just chews up the land faster into urban development. To no avail.

It's great to see those involved in the discussion yesterday, such as members of the Farm Bureau and the real estate profession, now beginning to embrace this idea.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

It's About Residents, Stupid!

I attended the Vibrant Downtown symposium yesterday in Salt Lake, which was very interesting. Lots of people were there, most of whom I did not know. Are there really that many new planners in the state that I haven't met, or were there just so few planners there?

You can read a couple of press accounts of the symposium in the Deseret Morning News and the Salt Lake Tribune.

Neither press piece captured what I think was the central message of all the out-of-town experts who spoke -- it's about residents. If you want downtown to be a vibrant, happening place with lots of people around 24/7, and places for them to hang out and buy things, you've got to have a strong residential component in the downtown to support the businesses and add full-time buzz.

Makes sense, really. In most of the cities I've been, in the U.S. and Europe, that are hopping places, there does seem to be a lot of apartments, condos, town homes, whatever, right in town and very close by.

The speakers also talked about other interesting components, such as the vitality and interest a university can bring to downtown, public facilities, street design, and so on. But the big message I got was about having people actually live there. It may take some time, but it can happen. San Diego's story was particularly telling to me, where the effort to create a vital downtown began with a focus on residential, and they kept at it for a number of years. Now the people are there, and everything else is beginning to fall into place.

Mayor Rocky Anderson did take his usual pot shots at the LDS Church, criticizing them for not making a more open process as they work through the redesign of the two downtown malls. While I agree that the owner and developer must come up with their proposals first, there is value in involving the public in the process early on, if for no other reason than to defuse concerns and opposition that will surely surface once the plans are revealed.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Buying Up Open Space -- Another View

Read a most interesting commentary in the Deseret News last week by Thomas Sowell, a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. He gives another whole viewpoint on the flood of programs that are now underway in many places around the country to buy up and preserve open space and farmland.

Sowell says that many such programs are promoted by those who find this a way to "do their part" to save some of the environment, but the effect in some places is to limit available land for new housing and thus cause substantial increases in housing costs and cut out all but the most wealthy from living there.

He says, "people who are sufficiently affluent can afford to move into places with severe restrictions on building. ... Among other things, this means that many young adults cannot afford to live near their parents, unless they actually live in their parents' homes. ... None of this just happened. Nor is it the result of market forces. What has happened essentially is that those already inside the castle have pulled up the drawbridge, so that outsiders can't get in. Politically, this selfishness poses as idealism."

Strong stuff, and an interesting perspective. I always think we need to be aware of the unintended consequences of many of the actions we push for as planners, as they become "chic" and gain a momentum of their own. While I support the purchase of property and development rights to protect critical lands, we need to be careful not to let this good program get too far out of hand.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

I'm Back! What Urban Life, Rome

Back last night, after being awake for over 24 hours, getting home from Rome. The jet stream is strong this time of year, making for a quick trip from the U.S. to Rome, but coming home... nearly 11 hours flying time, much of it because of that headwind!! Other than a little jet lag, though, I'm fine.

What an interesting city Rome is. And talk about urban life! It is everywhere! Fun to compare to what we're talking about here in Salt Lake City. What many here wouldn't give, I'm sure, to have the kind of street life going on in Rome 24 hours a day.

Something that really struck me, though, walking around in Rome (and in Paris and Berlin last year) ... the cars! They are just about everywhere. Side streets with cars parked everywhere, and traffic going all hours of the day and night. It became brilliantly obvious that the cars were what brought most of the people to these cities.

Cars in Rome go everywhere (except for a few areas cordoned off for pedestrians only), even down some of the most amazingly narrow side streets. And people just walk all over the place as well. Drivers have to have a completely different attitude and approach to driving, because cars and people just pull out in front of traffic all the time. As I watched (and then did it myself) people just walk out onto streets flooded with speeding cars, and saw the cars come to a quick stop, then move on, I thought how many dead people would be lying all over the place here if we tried moves like that. But it seems to work in Rome... the occasional honk or hand wave, but mostly people just accept that's the way things are.

Oh, no question they all have pretty good transit systems as well... a must I think for today's major metropolitan areas. But they find ways to accomodate, or at least tolerate, cars. So much of our talk seems to focus on how to get cars out of the downtowns, but from what I saw in Rome and other cities in Europe, they just live with 'em. They seem to be essential, in fact, to get the volume of people into town to do all the things that we hope will be found in downtowns.

So, it appears that cars, love 'em or hate 'em, you've got to find a way to live with 'em, else you risk having all those drivers go someplace else.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Don't Go Away -- I'm Just in Roma

For the next week or so, you will not see new posts on this blog, as I will be away in Rome. I'm going as the Utah delegation to help elect the new pope!

Actually, my wife planned this trip months ago for her spring break from school, and I'm tagging along. Can't believe the coincidence of events that are taking place as we go now. I'm just glad our trip wasn't last week during the Pope's mourning and funeral!

Should be fun. Check back in about a week, I'll be back with ground to make up.

Check back on the existing posts' comments, too. More and more of you are starting to get into this, and the comments, while slow, are getting interesting.

See you April 24!

Two Views from Planners

A couple of interesting essays of interest from planners recently, expressing some divergent views.

The first is "Taking a Lesson in Math to Limit Urban Sprawl," by Chris Fiscelli, a Senior Fellow at the Reason Public Policy Institute's Urban Futures Program.

Chris opines that building transit and instituting urban growth boundaries is more like treating the symptoms of sprawl rather than the root causes. He says, "A host of policies contribute to our sprawling urban regions such as zoning, revenue-raising land use decisions by cities, (etc.).. . Without first addressing these fundamental policy flaws in our urban regions, building shiny, new public works projects and drawing lines around cities is likely to have little positive effect."

"Without a fundamental shift by state and local governments to address the fundamental policies that exacerbate urban sprawl, building new light rail systems and subsidizing select projects alone will have no major impact on urban growth patterns or environmental preservation."

The second is a column in the New Urban News by Philip Langdon questioning APA's "need" to claim authorship of New Urbanism. Langdon writes, "A curious thing happened to the planning profession on its long road to recovery. The American Planning Association came closer than ever to endorsing New Urbanism's principles, but displayed a surprising lack of respect for many of the people who put those principles into practice."

"A significant number of planners have started to see themselves once more as advocates for good principles of community design, drawing on New Urbanism, regionalism, and environmental conservation. This is a welcome change. ... Some planners also quickly joined the movement, but the profession as a whole went on permitting single-purpose tract housing developments, shopping centers with awful pedestrian access, and isolated business 'parks.' Too much of the profession continues to do that."

Interesting stuff, though Langdon maybe forgets that planners usually are not the final approvers of the development plans that go forward, our planning commissions and governing bodies are, and they are sometimes even slower to change course than planners.

Worth the read, take a look.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Transportation, Congestion and Planning

One of my favorite writers Anthony Downs. He has written a couple of very good books on dealing with congestion and transportation, and relates it to how we manage land use on a regional level.

A couple of interesting excerpts from his book Still Stuck in Traffic: Coping With Peak-Hour Traffic Congestion:

"In almost every U.S. metropolitan area, attempts to carry out effective regional anticongestion tactics will be met by strong resistance. Any organizations created for this purpose could work well only if they exercised authority and powers now divided among many local and state government agencies, but most officials in those existing agencies strongly oppose any reduction of their present powers. Local governments are loath to yield any control over their land use to outsiders. ... Yet many tactics for reducing peak-hour congestion would require shifting at least some local powers over land use to a regional agency."

"This does not mean states will never create effective regional anti-congestion agencies, simply that such actions will be rare. ... Underlying that resistance is the fundamental belief among many citizens that reducing traffic congestion is far less important than pursuing other social or personal goals. Therefore, if reducing congestion means they must change behaviors they have cherished for other reasons, they may prefer to endure congestion -- while, of course, still complaining loudly about it."

In the book, Downs suggests a number of ideas for dealing with congestion, but, as you can see from the above quote, recognizes that making any of them happen may not be very likely. So, he concludes, get a good book on tape, find a good carpool mate, and learn to enjoy sitting in traffic because it isn't likely to change.

Many of Downs' ideas were succinctly expressed in a speech he gave to the New York Regional Plan agency in November 2004. He concluded that speech by saying, "In summary, my conclusions may surprise you. On one hand, I don't think traffic congestion is nearly as bad as most people do; in fact, I think it is a sign of economic and other success in a region. And I recommend your getting used to it, since I believe it will get worse in the future no matter what we do, as long as we keep growing and getting richer.

"On the other hand, I do not think our current method of planning land-use and transportation facilities...is anywhere nearly the most rational and effective method we ought to have. Yet political prospects for changing it are not very promising. Yet I believe we should not quit trying to improve.

"And finally, I believe we cannot expect to raise more money to meet our mobility requirements without confronting our overall social need to start saving more and taxing ourselves more, rather than continuing to live off the sacrifices of foreign savers and future taxes on our own children. That thought may not be popular, be we who are leaders have to start getting it across to the entire citizenry -- and soon."

Well said.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Shining Example of How to Limit Sprawl ... Salt Lake Metro?

This bit of news is a little old, but every time I look at this study, I am so amazed that I just thought it would be fun to share with you all.

Seems like we here in Utah (particularly the Salt Lake metro area) are constantly being criticised for how much we sprawl, how poorly we manage growth, how auto-oriented we are, etc, etc. How if we could only be more like Portland, Oregon, we could have less sprawl and a better quality of life.

Well, there's an interesting little study that was released in October 2004 by a group called Northwest Environment Watch in Seattle. The study is called "The Portland Exception: A Comparison of Sprawl, Smart Growth, and Rural Land Loss in 15 U.S. Cities."

The study makes some interesting statements, like "NEW's analysis...quite clearly demonstrate that greater Portland's urban growth policies -- particularly Oregon's 30-year-old land use laws but also Washington's more recent Growth Management Act -- have helped protect rural lands and open space on the urban fringe, and prevent the spread of low-density, sprawling development. "

"For every 100 new residents added to metropolitan Portland's cities and suburbs between 1990 and 2000, about 10 acres of rural land or open space were converted to suburban or urban development. In contrast, new residential development in Charlotte, North Carolina, consumed 49 acres...for every 100 new residents."

So the tone of the study is that Portland's growth policies have done a great job of reigning in the spread of new growth across the landscape. No wonder we keep hearing that we should all try to be like Portland.

The interesting part of the report is that of the 15 cities studied, Portland is in 3rd place. Two cities sprawled even less, by consuming only 9 acres for every 100 new residents. Want to guess who one of those two metro areas is? Yup, good ole' Salt Lake!

So...shouldn't we be out there telling everyone that they should be like us? That we're better than Portland?

How can this be, given what we all seem to believe about the way our area is developing? Maybe it has something to do with our desert environment, sandwiched between a couple of "natural" urban growth boundaries, the mountains and the Great Salt Lake. I don't know, but if this study is accurate, we must be doing something right!

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Downtown Salt Lake Planning Makes New York Times

Take a look at this piece in the New York Times from last week (requires a free registration, but it's worth it to read the piece). Our Salt Lake City downtown planning debate is in the news.

I mentioned in the last blog entry on this topic that Alex Marshall, one of the upcoming speakers at The Vibrant Downtown symposium April 26, seems to like a book by Roberta Brandes Gratz. Well, Gratz is quoted in the Times article, saying that she said an enclosed mall (in downtown Salt Lake) would kill the downtown's chances of regenerating. "Connecting open streets is the only thing that will make it urban," the quote continues.

However, Michael Beyard, a senior resident fellow at ULI, said that an enclosed mall would not necessarily doom hopes for a walkable downtown. North Michigan Avenue in Chicago has them. The San Francisco Shopping Center, a vertical mall on Market Street, is considered a success and is undergoing expansion.

The piece also talks about the apparent lack of public disclosure and involvement in the development of the Church's plans for the two malls downtown. Ron Pastore, a principle at AEW Capital Management and one of the consultants on the project hired by the LDS Church, said in the Times article that the project is so complex that it would have been premature to discuss details in public at this point.

Brenda Scheer, U. College of Architecture and Planning Dean and one of the main people putting together the Vibrant Downtown symposium, just emailed me saying that Pastore just agreed to be one of the speakers at the symposium.

So be sure not to miss this one. See an earlier blog entry for details on how to register.

More on "Ballot Box Zoning"

Today's Deseret News story about the Supreme Court hearing on the Sandy Wal-Mart rezone referendum is more complete, telling a little more about what was argued in front of the justices (see earlier blog entries on this topic).

The story notes that in their arguments, attorneys (finally!) made a distinction between administrative and legislative actions. Sandy's attorney seems to be trying to demonstrate a difference due to the scope of the action, arguing that the zoning approval for the project "did not conflict with the city's long-term plans for the gravel pit and therefore was not a drastic divergence," and thus should not be subject to referendum.

This approach seems to say that if a rezone is consistent with the general plan, it is not so much a legislative action, but more of an administrative one.

But most city attorneys I have talked to say they want to maintain a clear understanding that plans are only advisory, and any rezone action, however small, is distinctly a legislative action.

This story doesn't indicate if the argument was raised that the Utah Code says a rezone of individual properties is not a "local law," and thus is not referendable. Perhaps it was raised, but I have not seen it in any of the court cases on zoning referenda so far.

If the court were to address this issue head on, I wonder how it would fare? Would they allow this "exception" to taking to referendum other clearly legislative actions, stand?

The DesNews notes a decision by the Court is expected within a month. Stay tuned, this could be interesting.

All this plays around the issue of whether "ballot box zoning" is a good idea or not. Cynthia Long, one of the plaintiffs in the Sandy case, said after oral arguments were heard by the Court, "I think what's at stake is the citizens' right to get involved. If you disagree with what the administration is saying, then what is your only option?"

Which all begs the point, what value is the general plan and planning in general, if it is conducted with clear and substantial public involvement? Any planner knows that you can never get 100% agreement on a community general plan. "Ballot box zoning," in essence, allows any relatively small group to challenge what is proposed in the plan and expressed in zoning, and put the whole question on an up or down vote.

While I respect and support the need for citizens to be able to challenge laws and ordinances directly through referendum, perhaps the business of planning and land use regulation is a little different. The public gets its say and its involvement in the development of the general plan. That is where the citizens should be involved. If we allow anyone to challenge a duly developed and adopted plan any time new development is proposed, what have we done to the community-wide planning process?

And yet... and yet, the Utah Code maintains that general plans are advisory guides only, and that zoning actions do not necessarily need to follow the plan. So what are citizens to do if they've worked hard in the general plan process, have what most think is a good plan, and then the council votes to approve a rezone that is not consistent with that plan? Maybe then the ability to allow citizens to take such actions to a referendum is appropriate.

We can't have it both ways, folks. This is one area with no easy answers. It will be most interesting to see what the Utah Supreme Court says soon.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Alex Marshall Speaking at Vibrant Downtown Program

Alex Marshall, author and columnist on urban and transportation issues, will be one of the speakers at The Vibrant Downtown program to be held on April 26 at the Wells Fargo Building (see earlier blog post).

I read Marshall's book, How Cities Work, which I liked a lot. I thought he had some great ideas and insights into how our metro areas develop and grow, and what we might do about them. Here's a couple of excerpts:

"Every city built has grown from the spine of its transportation system, like flesh around bones, whether it be a river, a trail, a railroad, or a highway. If we want to shape a city, we have to shape its transportation system."

"It's transportation, stupid! In many of the efforts to redirect city planning, there has been a misplaced emphasis on zoning, as if zoning caused our cities to be laid out a particular way. This mistake is understandable, because this appears to be true at first glance. ...But in reality, zoning no more causes this than a posted speed limit causes cars to drive fast. Like most government regulations, zoning just tidies up what would be the basic form of the city anyway. The essential dynamic of the suburbs, which is separation of uses, and the essential dynamic of inner cities, which is mixed uses, are determined by their transportation system. No amount of rewriting zoning codes will change this."

To get an idea of what Marshall may have to say about revitalization of Salt Lake City's downtown, see his recent column entitled "Cities Back from the Edge." He reviews Roberta Brandes Gratz's book "The Living City," and notes that he likes her approach away from big projects in favor of small, individual, "organic" changes.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

More on Regional Facilities - Sewage Plant Struggle On-Going

A follow-up story to an earlier blog entry on planning for regional facilities as taking place now in the struggle for a sewage treatment plant along the Jordan River in Riverton deseretnews.com | Sewage plant foes ask for review of plan

With the approval of a permit for the plant by the Riverton Planning Commission, the debate has shifted to a more regional framework -- the need for the plant vs. plans for the Jordan River. This is how the debate on these type of facilities needs to take place -- how to accomplish given that in most cases approval is up to one local government, with its own interests and citizen views?

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Wal-Mart and A Referendum: What Happened in Vermont

Bennington Banner - Today's Headlines

What a combination -- a referendum in Bennington, Vermont, to overturn an ordinance passed by the City Council limiting the size of big box stores. A good example of the wisdom of the electorate? People want Wal-Mart? A good use of the referendum law? You almost can't write fiction as good as this reality. Do we planners really know what we're doing, for the community?

Friday, April 08, 2005

School Impact Fees

Yesterday's editorial opinion in the Standard-Examiner is about how school districts in Utah should be able to charge school impact fees on new housing developments.

What an idea! One that was thoroughly shot dead by the state legislature a couple of years ago, after the Park City School District had implemented one and was having some moderate success. Though impact fees were allowed (rather tenuously) by the legsilature for local government, there was no way they were going to let that idea get away and apply to lots of other things, which there may be some valid concern about.

But building of new schools, which is so directly tied to new develoment, seems like a logical place to allow the concept. Particularly with the difficulty we have in funding education, and with so much of the local options school funding based on the much-hated property tax.

Kudos, Standard-Examiner. Let's see if this idea gets any traction.

Utah Court Rules on Takings

Thanks to Neil Lindberg, who forwarded this link to the Utah Court of Appeals ruling yesterday on a takings case in Salt Lake County. The issue has to do with a lot made unbuildable because of a prohibition on building on steep slopes, and the failure of the Board of Adjustment to grant a variance, as well as a lot of other things going on.

Note particularly, Neil says, the discussion by the court on "findings of fact" and "conclusions of law," something we tell everyone to make sure their commissions and boards do.

"Simmer Down, Rocky," About Downtown Malls

"Simmer down, Rocky," begins today's Salt Lake Tribune editorial on Mayor Anderson's criticism of LDS Church plans (or lack of revealed plans) for redevelopment of the two major downtown malls. (See this blog's earlier entry for more background)

Downtown development -- or redevelopment -- is a hot topic, here and around the country. No question there is much to be discussed. Brenda Scheer, Dean of the University of Utah College of Architecture and Planning, is quoted in the Salt Lake City Weekly, saying she's troubled by Mayor Anderson's previous use of historical pictures to illustrate a once-bustling urban core. "All the men have hats and suits on, and they're chilling on sidewalks -- that image is very damaging. It harks back to a time when things were very different. Salt Lake City was a retail center (back then). Suburbs didn't exist. If that is the ideal expectation of a successful downtown, then that's a problem."

Everyone has a stake in downtown, and it's not a simple problem. Be sure to attend the upcoming "The Vibrant Downtown" half-day symposium on April 26. It will feature speakers from across the nation who will share what they've learned in the process of developing places that work, and local leaders and symposium participants will discuss and raise important issues. The symposium is hosted by a number of organizations, including the College of Architecture and Planning, Utah APA, ULI Utah District Council, Utah Society of AIA, and so on. You can register online by clicking on this link.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

To Vote, Or Not To Vote...

The issue of putting zoning actions up for a referendum vote surfaced again this week when the Sandy Wal-Mart petition was argued at the Utah Supreme Court Monday -- see Tribune story.

A similar effort in Riverton last year was the subject of a lot of maneuvering and even resulted in a couple of bills in the last legislative session -- see an earlier story in the Deseret News for a summary.

In Utah, citizens are allowed to subject state laws and local laws to a referendum vote, if they can get enough signatures and meet other fairly stringent requirements to do so. The key term here, though, is "law." It is generally understood that administrative actions, such as the approval of a conditional use permit or subdivision plat, are not subject to the referendum process.

Rezones, however, are legislative actions, right? So they should be subject to referendum. Not so fast. Take a look at the definition of "local law" in the state code -- it specifically says, "'Local law' does not include individual property zoning decisions."

Some have argued that a rezone is simply an administrative action, implementing the land use on property envisioned in the general plan. But local officials, in an effort to maintain maximum flexibility, have maintained that a rezone is a legislative action. However, when it comes to referendum law, that particular legislative action is removed.

What is interesting to me is that in the Riverton and Sandy situations, the argument doesn't seem to be made that these rezone actions are just simply not referendable. Why is that? Are the attorneys hoping to not raise the question before the court of whether such actions really can be exempted?

Is it a good idea to allow rezones to be referendable? There is a rather substantial debate about that going on in the planning profession right now. In San Francisco at last month's APA National Conference, a policy guide on ballot box planning, as it is called, was supposed to be debated and voted upon. However, the issue was complex enough, and split enough, that more time is being taken to flesh things out.

Lora Lucero, a land use attorney in Albuquerque, has prepared a draft issues paper on the topic, presenting the arguments for and against. She says, in part, "Proponents of planning at the ballot box assert it provides the greatest amount of local control over a quintessentially local issue and that it enfranchises local citizens, provides residents with the authority to shape their own communities and directy address problems associated with growth. They have also claimed that the ... referenda powers act as a check on public officials who 'only pay lip service to extensive public participation and actually try to restrict it.'"

Opponents, Lucero notes, are concerned that ballot box planning often occurs where incomplete or distorted information is all that is available to the general public as they consider what are often complex and changing conditions and circumstances -- that the deliberation and examination cannot take place that occurs in a more "objective" setting where opponents and proponents have their chance to make their case before a deliberative body. Often, ballot questions are presented in stark "yes-or-no" format, when the actual solution may be more nuanced.

California is probably the extreme example of ballot box planning, with tens and hundreds of local land use actions on the ballot every election throughout the state. The uncertainty that such a system exists under is something that many fear.

My question is, do we really want to go down the road of opening up rezone decisions to ballot box procedures? Does such a system really do justice to the complexity that exists in many such proposals? Why do we have elected officials, if not to make these kinds of decisions in a measured, deliberative way? Will residents really approve anything other than single-family zoning?

I'd like to hear from you all on this one.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Davis County Is Not Just About New HIghways...

Good story in this morning's Deseret News about south Davis mayors pushing to get bus rapid transit. To all those who think Davis County is only about getting Legacy Parkway, take that!

Citizens and elected officials in Davis County have long realized that given the strong growth rate in northern Utah, and the hourglass character of this county, something's got to give. An alternate highway has long been planned and needed to provide another route in case I-15 is closed down (it's happened a couple of times in the last few years - once for over 24 hours!), and simply to add new capacity. But we all know that transit has to play a large role as well.

In 2000, Davis County residents passed the transit tax increase by the largest percentage of the three counties voting on it (the others were Weber and Salt Lake). Contradiction? Not at all -- our citizens just realize that it will take ALL modes and alternatives to meet the projected future growth and demand.

Commuter rail will be running to Davis and Weber Counties by 2008 -- we can't wait! And we sure would like to see bus rapid transit get underway soon as well, before the Feds run out of money for new transit projects.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Wal-Mart Coming to Syracuse

deseretnews.com Syracuse looks over Wal-Mart plans

Take a look at the Deseret News story link above on Wal-Mart coming to Syracuse. Quite a contrast from Wal-Mart proposals in Centerville and Sandy, though there still apprears to be opposition.

Anti-Wal-Mart mania is an interesting phenomenon going on around the country. I do believe that in many instances, Wal-Mart has had an overall negative effect on community business districts. Who really likes those big sterile parking lots, the big box building, the minimal landscaping, etc.? But people sure do seem to like going there to shop, probably mainly for the prices. And most communities have zoning ordinances in place that allow for such developments, and its downright illegal to stop or prevent Wal-Marts from coming in if they meet the existing code.

That's why Syracuse's experience should be watched closely. Wal-Mart is proposing to locate on a large tract of vacant land that the city did extensive planning for as a town center (sound familiar, Centerville folks?) Only in this case, the city has adopted standards for town center development. How will Wal-Mart fit into such plans? In my conversations with the Mayor and with city planner Roger Worthen, they are working hard to make that happen, and it just may. Wal-Mart as part of a new town center? Interesting idea! Keep watching!

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Regional Facilities Need Help

A story in this morning's Deseret News once again highlights the issue of how we plan and get in place needed facilities that serve more than one community (regional facilities). This issue came to a head in the 2004 legislature when a serious fight was underway between the Metro Water District and Draper City over where to build a major water treatment plant. A bill was passed that requires cities and counties, and special districts, school districts and major public utilities to at least notify each other when they adopt or modify their plans, so others can know what they are considering. The referenced story is about the on-going debate in the placement of a sewage treatment plant in the Jordan River bottom in Riverton. After months of contentious meetings, the Riverton Planning Commission gave preliminary approval to the facility, but a group of citizens vows to continue to fight it.

This year's legislature considered a bill by Rep. Greg Hughes, HB126, that would have required cities and counties to consider a variety of issues relating to regional facilities before they acted upon them. The bill seemed like it was going to go forward, but died in the last days of the session, reportedly because special districts had some concerns. Odd, since this bill would have at least brought to light some of the more relevant regional considerations that need to be given to these kinds of facilities.

This example serves as a continuing example of the issues that beset dealing with such needed regional facilities -- how, in our fragmented local governmental structure, do we deal with facilities and services that are needed for our metropolitan areas? The Salt Lake metro area (or the Wasatch Front metro area, if you prefer), like metro areas all around the nation and the world, functions economically and socially like one large unit, but we have problems dealing with regionwide needs to keep things working efficiently and effectively, like water treatment, sewage treatment, transit (witness the on-going debate about Utah County's involvement in UTA), and other regional functions.

We need to step up to the plate and make some concrete moves in the direction of more effective metro-wide effectiveness, if we are to have a high-quality metropolitan community.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Beginning Again

Well, I have so many thoughts rumbling around in my head about planning in Utah, about planning in general, and related issues and topics, this may be the way for me to get those thoughts out, sorted through, and commented upon.

I welcome readers' comments and thoughts as well, and hope we can get a dialog going on some of the hot planning-related topics of the day.

A couple of interesting stories in today's Salt Lake Tribune and Deseret News about Mayor Rocky Anderson's and other's comments on the downtown mall redevelopment planning being undertaken by the LDS Church. I applaud the LDS Church for using some top-notch professionals to help in this effort, but I also agree with comments made that the process should become more public.

Downtown will be a places for everyone, and while it is at times a messy and frustrating process, getting the comments of the public who will use it and criticize it is just a smart thing to do.