Thursday, April 28, 2005

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.


At 8:00 AM, Blogger Nicole said...

I have to agree with Wilf. This principle of smaller lot and open spaces either dedicated or preserved through a conservation easement often falls upon deaf ears. As I have studied this it really goes down to perception. This equates to "elbow room" that assures people that they aren't crammed in to an urban level of development. I have to come realize it isn't what people say, but how they buy that best describes what the market is looking for. In Tooele I did a small study of land within an urbanized subdivision, some that fronted on dedicated open space and other that was not. The land that fronted along the open space on average is 38% higher in market value. Reason is that it can not be encroached upon by other development. No brainer right? Well the perception people have that 1 and 5 acre lots is that of protection from encroachment. It goes with the old addage that we as planners have said many times, if you want to control the land, own it. So they try to. Problem is, the historic development patterns show that such large lots become cumbersome and people start to cut it up into smaller lots. So the effort becomes self defeating. The idea of using TDR's is not new, and some have gone so far as to use it, but none to point of taking full advantage of it. It does require a rather comprehensive review by staff and for many places they don't have that resource. But the idea doesn't have to come in the mega size proportion. Most any jurisdiction can do internal TDRs within a sizable development. This doesn't take any real special ordinance or effort. Rather it takes tack to get everyone involved to become a little innovative. But one objection that I have to respect that comes up time after time is that of getting the financial community to back such projects. If there is a weak link that is it. Should the financal people really be the deciding factor in the development of land? Well they have a great amount of influence to do so. If it is something different, they aren't so excited to back it, so it fails. I know this from some of the developers we have that had to go long and far to get the backing. Our traditional Utah financial markets shy away from such ventures. If we are to really accomplish the preservation of open spaces, we HAVE to educate them too. But something has to be done now. 25 years from now will definately be too late.

At 10:35 AM, Blogger Prof Simmons said...

Open space is such a relative term. Does anyone in Utah live more then 15 minutes away from thousands of acres of national forest or BLM land? No? Then the issue is not open space per se, it is about undeveloped property in my neighborhood that someone else owns. Keeping that property undeveloped requires someone pay for it, preferably someone other than me. In order to get others to pay for it I must develop justifications like economic development, the children, or ecosystem function.

As a rather libertarian member of a city council I was strongly criticized for engineering overlay zones and reducing minimum lot sizes from 15,000 sq ft to 8,000. The small lots sell as soon as they are on the market. The residents there create new, vibrant neighborhoods, and the older residents continue to grumble about formerly unproductive hay fields becoming places to raise children instead of alfalfa.

I, however, live on a one acre + lot where I create my own refuge from the world. My children have chosen to purchase very small lots. The point is that there is a broad range of demand and planners can work within that demand or ignore it and become irrelevant.

The subdivisions in my town could be far more creative if the zoning laws were changed to allow it. They could protect local open spaces by rewarding developers with increased density allowances. Allowing different orientations of homes (coving)rather than forcing them to face the street could reduce linear feet of roads an average of 20%. They could allow for mixed uses. But it is politically dangerous for city councils to make such changes. Citizens think their property values will go down. Thus, the real action for innovation may be in the PUDs where they can invent their own rules within a set of broad guidelines.

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