Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Utah's Pioneers Embraced Smart Growth?

A couple of days ago, LaVarr Webb on his Utah Policy Daily web newsletter mentioned a paper written recently by Craig Galli, a local attorney. Craig has long had an interest in planning and transportation in Utah, and his piece, called Building Zion: The Latter-Day Saint Legacy of Urban Planning, appeared in BYU Studies (Vol 44, No.1).

It is an interesting paper, outlining the history of community planning efforts by early LDS Church leaders. There is no question that the communities of early Mormon Utah and surrounding areas were extensively influenced by a distinct settlement pattern.

Perhaps more interesting is Craig's assertion that this early Utah/Mormon "planning" effort resembles today's Smart Growth programs.

Craig writes, "The City of Zion plat included virtually all of the ... smart growth components: relatively high density (15,000 to 20,000 residents within 1.5 square miles or 960 acres), mixed commercial and residential development, community facilities and common areas, extensive landscaping, small urban farms and gardens, and surrounding open space. Once the community reached its population threshold, the Saints would 'lay off another in the same way, and so fill up the world in the last days.'"

An idea that might work well in the 1850's, but would it work on today's Wasatch Front, with 2 million residents and growing fast? Could we maintain open space between communities? Would there be a large CBD, like downtown SLC? Is it more cost efficient - wouldn't people eventually be living in one town and working in another, still driving all over the place? Still, it's an intriguing thought.

Craig continues, "In short, the City of Zion Plat and the urban design advanced by Joseph Smith and his immediate successors incorporated modern ideas of urban growth boundaries, land use regulations to direct growth, a town center, and surrounding protected greenbelt.
"In recognition of this fact, in 1996 the American Institute of Certified Planners awarded Joseph Smith's City of Zion Plat the National Planning Landmark Award, acknowledging it as one of the earliest examples of smart growth. (The award plaque reads) 'The Plat of the City of Zion, incorporated in a remarkable treatise on urban design addressed to the leadership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints by Joseph Smith on June 25, 1833, guided the development of over 500 settlements in the Intermountain West, establishing a continuing commitment to the building of well-planned and culturally nurturing cities.'"

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

RDA Revision, Wal-Marts, and Referenda

A bit of odds and ends that have come to my attention in the last day or two:

Yesterday's Deseret News ran a story on the RDA revision being worked on by the League of Cities and Towns. A good story that summarizes pretty well what is being worked on. Something is indeed needed to give communities the tools to enhance and encourage job growth and revitalization of communities.

Today's Trib has a story about an apparent settlement between Riverton City and the opponents of the rezones for Wal-Mart and other associated development. This was likely to have been the next court ruling in Utah on the issue of referenda for land use decisions, but it now appears that the fight has been settled. Good for Riverton City, though some further clarification from the Courts about what is referendable might have been helpful.

And on a related front, Lora Lucero in Albuquerque forwarded on to me a story out of South Dakota where the state supreme court ruled that the approval of a conditional use permit by a local government, in accordance with the procedures and rules set down in the local ordinance, was an administrative act and hence was not referendable.

In response, the citizens opposed to the CUP have started an initiative petition that would add the wording, "The approval of any conditional use request is a legislative decision," to the state code. Thus, they are trying to change by fiat what is considered an administrative and legislative action, with regard to conditional use permits.

I've seen a comment from another land use attorney that simply trying to declare the action such in the state code won't cut it, but others are not so sure.

Why not just call everything a legislative act and make it all subject to referendum? That's the logical conclusion such action leads to.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Have Planning Commissions and City Councils Cast Secret Ballots?

At the Western Planner/Utah APA Conference a few weeks ago, I gave a presentation called "How Collective Wisdom Can Help Plan Our Communities." My comments were based on a book, The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies, and Nations, by James Surowiecki.

The basic idea of the book is, if you can find a way to tap into the "opinions" of large groups of people in objective ways, the group is remarkably good at picking the right answers.

That's a vast oversimplification, but the book is pretty fascinating stuff. For instance, it starts off with the example of English country fairs in the late 1800's, where a social scientist tried to prove that the "average" citizen is not good at guessing the weight of oxen. Instead, what he found, as he collected all the guesses that were made and then averaged them, was that the "crowd" came amazingly close to the actual weight every time. Other examples he uses are things like the stock market and opinion polls.

The book goes on to refine the notion, and give a lot of other examples. It also talks about decision-making by small groups, like committees, juries and commissions.

Surowiecki culls some basic principles out of the examples about how to get the best wisdom of groups. He says the best decisions result when the group is diverse (so not everyone in the group is alike and thinks the same way), you have a way to aggregate their decisions (like a market or a poll), and everyone can make their decision independently.

As I talked about the dynamics of these principles for a small group like a planning commission or city council, I discussed the importance of having each member make their decisions independently to get the best result. That is something difficult to do in these settings, for a couple of reasons.

First, the commission or council usually discusses the matter before them. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, because done correctly (!) it brings out more information and other ideas to be considered. The problem comes in what Surowiecki calls an "information cascade" -- that is, one person expresses an opinion or casts a vote, and others simply jump on the bandwagon because they figure what the heck, that person must be right because I sure don't know.

How often have we watched a vote of a planning commission or city council take place, and some members hold back to see how others vote first? Such behavior, according to the author, can actually make a group dumber because it increases the chances that there is piling on onto a dumb decision. Yes, someone in the group will likely make a "dumb" vote, but overall, if each member of the group is acting independently, it should average out to get a better vote. That won't happen if group members just "pile on" to the vote made by the first member, because either they don't know, or it's the "safe" vote.

Second, group members are sometimes influenced in the vote they cast by the public in attendence, watching closely how they vote. Occassionally, the public who shows up at the meeting feel strongly about the issue one way or the other, and it can be extremely intimidating for the commission/council members in how they cast their vote.

So, I threw out the idea, what if we had planning commissions/city councils cast secret ballots? This would eliminate many of those problems, and would help ensure the independent decision-making that Surowiecke says is key to making better decisions.

An interesting idea we kicked around for a while, but I knew, given our tradition of public and open meetings, such an idea would likely never fly. People want to know (and rightly so) how a particular council person voted on a given issue, so they can decide whether to re-elect them in the next election.

But, an intriguing idea, no?

Friday, August 26, 2005

Sandy Referendum Now Campaign Topic As Well

Who can say that, as I've said before, local politics is much about planning and zoning?

Today's Trib and DesNews confirm that assessment in spades, as they report on the first debate between Sandy's mayoral candidates. The primary topic of the debate -- the gravel pit development and the upcoming referendum on the zoning change.

And, by all accounts, things got a little heated as well.

Promises to be an interesting campaign season, if nothing else!

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Legislative Tax Reform Task Force Getting Close to Recommendations

This morning I attended the meeting of the Tax Reform Task Force subcommittee on RDAs and other tax ideas. The RDA restructure proposal put together by the League of Cities and Towns seems to be a reasonable approach, something that will create some new tools for local government for economic development. Legislators, particularly Sen. Bramble, seem to be OK with most of the ideas (everything except eminent domain for true redevelopment-no way that is going anywhere).

Of particular interest are some of the proposals kicking around for changing the local sales tax distribution. Some (most notablySen. Greg Bell) have been pushing for changing the formula to a distribution based 100% on population -- no point of sale. The idea behind this is that it will take away any incentive for local governments to "zone for dollars;" that is, seek after commercial development (particularly big box developments) because of the sales tax benefit.

Another idea, put forward by Sen. Howard Stephenson, would change the formula to also include a component for jobs -- employment numbers or wage numbers, to serve as an incentive for local governments to seek after businesses that create new, higher paying jobs. Legislative staff is in the process of researching and drafting bills to do this.

Interesting ideas, but will they work? Will they really accomplish what these legislators are hoping for? Something I think we need to spend some time and really research!

Proposed legislation for all these ideas is supposed to be ready by early October.

See story in the Salt Lake Trib on this topic.

Let the Referendum Games Begin!

Good story in this morning's Deseret News on the "campaigns" that are starting to gear up in Sandy over the gravel pit development referendum.

We get more of these, it may be how we decide important land use issues in Utah in the future.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Religious Land Use Protection Act Gets Better Defined by Courts

A few years ago, Sen. Orrin Hatch sponsored a bill that was designed to give reglious-related land uses protection, or even exemptions, from local land use regulations. The impetus behind the bill was that land use requirements sometimes seemed to be used to keep certain religious uses and activities out of some communities.

The first version of the law was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court, and a second version was passed that so far has stood up, though there are challenges to it pending in the courts.

The concern of many planners was that the Act (called RLUIPA) gave religious land uses, like churches, exemptions from local regulations that really had nothing to do with exercise of religion.

In Utah, a bill was passed in the last session of the state legislature that in effect echoes the federal RLUIPA, prompted in part because of the objections of residents to the building of churches in residential neighborhoods.

This month's Planning magazine includes a short piece by Jim Lawlor on a RLUIPA case in Oregon that seems to define better what can and can't be done in regulating churches under such laws. Interestingly for us in Utah, the case involved a permit for an LDS chapel.

The case, decided in May, is Corporation of the Presiding Bishop of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints v. City of West Linn.

The LDS Church had applied for a conditional use permit to build a church on a 3.85-acre parcel in a residential area of West Linn. The structure and parking would cover 2.02 acres, leaving a buffer that would be 26 feet wide at its narrowest point.

The city council of West Linn denied the permit application, primarily because of inadequate buffering from the surrounding neighborhood. The Church filed a lawsuit on RLUIPA grounds, which went through to the intermediate appeals court. The intermediate appeals court upheld the city council's decision, holding that the buffer requirement did not amount to a substantial burden on the church's exercise of religion. The Church then appealed to the Oregon Supreme Court.

Reviewing U.S. Supreme Court precedents on substantial burden on exercise of religion and RLUIPA rulings by federal appeals courts, the Oregon Supreme Court concluded that a substantial burden is one that imposes pressure to forego or modify the expression of religious beliefs.

The court did not doubt that the city's denial of the conditional use permit was a burden. The Church would have to submit a new permit application, with either a larger lot or a smaller structure, and that would entail further delay and expense.

However, those hardships were not a substantial burden under RLUIPA, the court concluded. Siting a large structure often involves multiple applications and changes, along with related legal, architectural, and engineering costs, it observed. The city offered specific reasons for denying the permit, and nothing in the record suggested that it would not approve a revised application that addressed its concerns. Nor was there anything in the record to suggest that the permit denial was motivated by religious prejudice.

Thus, it may look like reasonable land use regulations may well be applicable to religious structures and uses, and they won't get a pass just because they are religious.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Start Thinking and Acting Like a Region

The recent passage by Congress of the transportation funding bill, called TEA-LU, again brings to mind the need for metropolitan areas like ours to start thinking and acting like a region.

TEA-LU requires MPOs (like Wasatch Front Regional Council and Mountainlands Association of Governments) to take into consideration land use patterns of the region as they develop their long range transportation plans.

WFRC and MAG have embarked on an extensive process to do this in their next round of updates to the Long Range Transportation Plan, starting with Wasatch Vision 2040, being conducted by Envision Utah.

The start of a new state administration by Gov. Huntsman should also be giving us an opportunity to approach some key issues -- transportation and economic development -- on a regional basis. Alas, at the state level this seems to be a slow take. All the more disappointing, since John Huntsman, Jr. was at one time the chair of Envision Utah.

A few years ago, I penned several essays on regionalism and the need for a new approach in Utah. Here are some quotes:

"The Wasatch Front is truly functioning now as a single region, and must begin acting like a region to solve some of its most vexing problems. Anthony Downs, a Senior Fellow with the Brookings Institute who studied cities around the nation, wrote recently, '...no locality can effectively isolate itself from the rest of its metropolitan region, because its destiny is inexorably bound up with what is happening there.'

"Downs continues, 'yet the structure of governance within metropolitan areas almost never reflects these regional realities. Except for a few regional transporation and sewer-and-water authorities, almost all governmental powers affecting the above problems are divided among individual localities, most of which are too small to encompass any large fraction of those problems."

Think water treatment plants, sewage treatment plants, economic development programs, etc.!

"We must be willing to coordinate and cooperate. Sounds simple enough, but it just doesn't seem to come easily. Once a city or county is established with its own set of ordinances and powers, it just doesn't want to give any of that up. Anthony Downs notes, '...objections (to cooperation) are primarily motivated by the unwillingness of most local officials and many citizens to yield any of their existing powers, even though those powers are failing to solve many crucial social problems."

So what's the solution? Stay tuned, we'll discuss some ideas in future blogs.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Even Major Newspaper Gets Referendum Issue Wrong

The lead editorial in today's DesNews argues that the proposed ballot language for the Sandy City gravel pit referendum is purposefully vague and does not give voters a clear picture of what they are voting for.

While the DesNews editorial writers may have a point on that issue, they then go on to completely mischaracterize what the vote is about. The editorial says, "While an admitted oversimplification, the issue basically boils down to this: 'Should the gravel pit become a mixed-use development?' or 'Should the gravel pit become a park?'"

Once again, the case is being made by this editorial about the complexity that exists in planning and land use issues, and how it is extremely difficult to get the right issues before the voters.

Sandy City officials have said numerous times, the issue is not about whether the gravel pit will be a mixed-use development or a park. The gravel pit property is far too expensive for the city to acquire for a park, and this has never been on the table. Instead, it has to do with an amendment to the text of the zoning ordinance to expand the types of uses that would be allowed in the gravel pit. If the Sandy City ordinance is rejected by the voters, the gravel pit is still zoned for development, just with a smaller range of uses.

Admittedly, the proposed ballot language does not give a clear sense of this, either. But, if even one of the major daily newspapers in Salt Lake can't get this right, what hope is there for the public at large to understand it?

Friday, August 19, 2005

Sandy Referendum Ballot Wording Challenged

As noted would happen in an earlier blog entry, Save Our Communities has filed a petition with the Utah Supreme Court to challenge the wording that is supposed to appear on the ballot in November on the gravel pit development in Sandy.

Robyn Bagley, a member of SOC, says of the proposed ballot wording, "It's a threat to the referendum process. The voters don't know what they are voting for."

Wally Miller, Sandy City Attorney, on the other hand, says, "We contacted the key parties on all sides of the dispute before we wrote the language. But we could not reach a consensus."

So SOC is now asking the Utah Supreme Court to write the language. What kind of process are we getting ourselves into in land use planning and regulation? You can read more details on this story in both the DesNews and the Salt Lake Trib.

The ballot wording in dispute? Here it is:

"In November 2004, Sandy City adopted Ordinance No. 04-45 governing land uses at the 'Gravel Pit' (approximately 1000 East and 9400 South). The stated purpose of the ordinance is to provide for master-planned mixed use development to act as a cohesive development combining retail, commercial, higher density residential, office and public uses as specified in the ordinance, under a master plan and standards which encourage integration of uses and appropriate transition to abutting zones."

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Dealing Realistically with Sprawl

I received an email yesterday from an author who will be at the Rail-Volution conference in Salt Lake City in a couple of weeks (Sept. 8-10). The opening line of the email -- "Sprawl Kills -- How Blandburbs Steal Your Time, Health and Money, by Joel S. Hirschhorn."

What a way to catch your attention! It turns out to be a pretty blatant marketing ploy to get attendees at the conference to come listen to Hirschhorn and buy his book. And, if you're into rhetoric about that great evil of our society -- sprawl -- it'll probably pull you in.

But over the years I have come to be wary of such broadsides, particularly when they tout their philosophy as the cure for all those ills.

"Sprawl" is an incredibly loaded word, and means a lot of different things to different people. As I read through the rest of the email, what it sounds like Hirschhorn is advocating is changing the design of typical suburban development. "Healthy active living can be promoted by replacing blandburbs (now there's a term of art!) with walkable real neighborhoods, designed on smart growth and New Urbanism principles. No matter what else you've read, "Sprawl Kills" gives a new picture of what American society can and should be." Wow! All that by changing the design of a subdivision?

You see, it doesn't seem that Hirschhorn is addressing the core issues of sprawl -- even though you change the design, it is still a subdivision out there off a freeway exit where you have to have a car to get to work, to the theater, to the sports event, to shop (in all likelihood).

A couple of writers I have come to like and respect talk about this pretty extensively.

One is Richard Carson, current Community Development Director of Vancouver, Washington and the former Executive Director of Portland METRO. Speaking of writers like Hirschhorn, Carson says, "Of course it is always popular to be against convention in order to sell books. But there are limits to such ridiculous rhetoric. America is the most powerful nation on earth, with one of the highest standards of living, and with an amazing amount of personal independence and mobility. Much of this is precisely so because of the car."

Carson goes on to say that one of the problems with the image of planners today is that we often try to push things that people do not want. Eventually we wind up being ignored as irrelevant, or actually spark a revolt, as when voters passed Measure 37 in Oregon. He says, "Many current government planning policies are being driven by a desire on the part of environmentalists and some sympathetic elected officials to change the American automobile culture. The anti-automobile sales pitch is designed to radically change our lifestyles, limit our mobility by getting us out of the car, and to have us walk, ride a bike or use transit."

This is fine as far as it goes -- but given our current development trends, we may be peeing in the wind if we push too far too hard.

Carson continues, "It is time for those who would be king to end the denial about the automobile. It is here to stay and will only get more popular. The automobile will be here long after New Urbanism becomes yesterday's architectural news." He cites several sources about new technology developing that will replace internal combustion engines with other, more environmentally friendly energy sources, and hence, we will still have cars, maybe even lots more of them because they will not be constrained by diminishing oil resources. "I am not suggesting that we abandon the quest for a more multi-modal transportation system. However, we should build the system people want. It is clear most people prefer the automobile to mass transportation."

"Some environmentalists are taking a perfectly good idea (increased transit and transit-oriented development) to a political, social and economic extreme. They preach that compact urban areas must be achieved by increasing urban densities. Their strategy...is to save the natural environment by packing people in to dense human reservations and then to limit their mobility by convincing them that they don't need automobiles. A more rational economic approach is to decide what the market deamnds for housing actually will be and to plan the future accordingly."

Alex Marshall, author and commentator on urban planning issues, is even more direct. He says, "There's only one problem: New Urbanism doesn't work. It's proponents are selling something they can't deliver without charging a far higher price, and without making changes far more fundamental than redesigning a few homes. ... The problem is that, while these (New Urbanist) developments mimic the old 19th century streetcar neighborhoods, they keep the same transportation system that produces conventional suburbs. ... They sit right off a main highway. They often have a single entrance. They have winding roads that are just slightly less confusing than cul-de-sacs. They are, in effect, subdivisions masquerading as small towns, except with the homes pushed up to the street and a few front porches thrown on.

"Indeed," Marshall continues, "the Achilles' heel of New Urbanist developments has been their inability to change the way people shop, and the way retailers locate their stores."

The problem is essentially this, according to Marshall. "The older sections of European cities and places like New York and Boston were scaled to people getting around on horse and by foot. The classic nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century neighborhoods many people love were created by extensions of streetcar lines. Levittown was a product of cars and highways. And the mega-malls and subdivisions that surround Washington grew from the highway system that laces the region. New Urbanists propose building what are essentially streetcar suburbs, without the transportation systems that originally support those kinds of neighborhoods. This is a fruitless exercise. The result, at best, is a place that looks like Georgetown but functions like any other subdivision built off the Beltway."

Well, enough of this rant. I don't mean to say there aren't good things about New Urbanist designs. It's great to live in a neighborhood where you can walk to school, to the park, to the local store (though I'm not sure the local store can survive just on local business without charging a whole lot more than Wal-Mart does). But the basic pattern of development doesn't change -- suburbs and shopping spread out along highways.

And if we think we can supplant all that by not building any new highways or roads and thus get people out of their cars -- well, then you must understand something about people and our mobility society that I don't.

In closing this long, long blog entry (sorry about that!), let me point out that Hirschhorn says in his email, "Readers will learn about corrupt sprawl politics used by the sprawl industry, how the public must be involved in planning, and how to evaluate true alternatives to sprawl being designed and built by the most innovative land developers and home builders." Carson notes, "Now 'sprawl' is either a spreading virulent cancer that is destroying the fabric of the American culture or it is the spreading of economic wealth depending on your political views. But in either case it was with full knowledge...to make 'sprawl' federal policy. The government underwrote both the suburban housing boom through Veteran subsidies and then provided the freeway system to feed it."

Was this done by hoodwinking all of us, or did we cheer it on? I tend to think the latter.

Come listen to Hirschhorn at Rail-Volution, it should be good entertainment!

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Planning, Growth IS Local Politics

So what is much of local politics about, if it isn't about growth and development, and the planning of our communities?

This is borne out again in the budding stories about the upcoming municipal elections this fall. Yesterday was the deadline for candidate filings, and many of those signing up to run for mayor or city council are doing so because of growth-related issues.

The main story in today's Trib kicking off the local election season is about -- the zoning referendum in Sandy! Says the Trib, "...an active member of Save Our Communities -- the grass-roots group that challenged City Hall over development of a gravel pit near 9400 South and 1000 East -- is taking on three-term mayor Tom Dolan.

"'I'm just a citizen with a sense of frustration,' (mayoral candidate Gary) Forbush said."

The referendum on the gravel pit development will also be on the same ballot, by order of the Utah Supreme Court.

Like I said when I started this blog, so much of local politics is about planning for growth. It's what we do!

Monday, August 15, 2005

Planning by Doing Nothing

A story in yesterday's Standard-Examiner about the difference between two communities in west Weber County and how they approach a future alignment for the Legacy Highway, is a good example of the challenges we face in planning coherently for regional facilities, when we are fragmented into so many individual local governments.

In a nutshell, one community (Hooper) is recognizing the inevitablity of future growth and the need for another transportation corridor. The city is doing some innovative stuff to preserve the corridor, like offering developers bonus densities in other areas in return for not building in the future corridor. Way to go, Hooper!

In contrast, West Haven is ignoring the issue, allowing new development in the identified corridor. "'We're doing nothing to preserve the Legacy,' city planner Steve Anderson bluntly stated." West Haven officials say that they are not even sure where the corridor will ultimately be, because it has changed around several times in recent years, so why should they impose on private property owners to preserve it?

So this justifies not dealing with it? In some ways, communities can pre-determine where a roadway will go in the future by doing what Hooper does, because when the state gets around to building the road in future years, there will be one clear place to put it -- where there is no development!

This reminds me of many similar instances I've seen over my years as a planner, where one community plans a major road or facility that needs to go into a neighboring community, and the other community either doesn't want it there, or (more likely) is sticking their heads in the sand about growth and the need to deal with it. "If we don't do anything to even acknowledge it, then we won't get the growth," seems to be the attitude of some local officials. But guess what, it seems to show up anyway, whether you're ready or not.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Of Sprawl and Density in the West

There is a rather remarkable story in yesterday's Washington Post titled "Out West, a Paradox: Densely Packed Sprawl."

It is remarkable because the conventional wisdom is that the newer cities of the West, that were built during times of car dominance, are the sprawling, far-flung places planners try to avoid replicating.

But, according to the story, nothing could be further from the truth. The story says, "The urbanized area in and around Los Angeles has become the most densely populated place in the continental United States, according to the Census Bureau. Its density is 25 percent higher than that of New York, twice that of Washington (D.C.) and four times that of Atlanta, as measured by residents per square mile of urban land.

"Odd as it may seem, density is the rule, not an exception, in the wide-open spaces of the West. Salt Lake City is more tightly packed than Philadelphia. So is Las Vegas in comparison with Chicago, and Denver compared with Detroit. Ten of the country's 15 most densely populated metro areas are in the West, where residents move to newly developed land at triple the per-acre density of any other part of the country."

How can this be? Well, think about new developments here compared with, say, suburban Virginia. We argue a lot around here about having lots be 10- or 12,000 square feet, and many developments have far smaller lots. Last fall, as I drove around suburban Virginia, I was amazed to see how many subdivisions there were advertising 5-acre, 10-acre lots, all hidden in those majestic trees and forests. And that's what makes the difference.

The Post story goes on to say, "Open space in the West has always seemed endless. But deserts, mountains, huge tracts of federally owned land and a pervasive lack of water make much of the region unliveable. As such, (the West) has remained the most rural part of the country in terms of land use while becoming the most densely urban in terms of where people live."

Drive around the rural west -- not a lot of homes, but lots of open space. Drive around the rural east -- lots of trees and lots of houses tucked into those trees, especially just outside metro areas -- everyone wants to live on that large, secluded lot.

The story then talks about how density is being driven higher in Western cities: strong population growth on limited land means more small lots and townhouse style development with amenities that make it expensive (2-bedroom townhouse in Orange County selling for upwards of $700,000), while in older areas filled with Latino immigrants, small homes and apartments are stuffed with 6 or more people per unit, and growing.

It is fascinating stuff, making me think we are missing the boat if we think sprawl is mainly about density. We got density -- it's got to be more about liveable communities!

Thursday, August 11, 2005

"Smart Growth" on the West Side

Yesterday's DesNews carried an editorial opinion titled "Grow West Bench 'Smartly.'" It talks about how the Salt Lake County Counci of Governments endorsed the idea of looking comprehensively at future growth of the "west bench" -- the area along the slopes of the Oquirrh Mountains.

As a planner, I'm all for a comprehensive look at growth, wherever it may occur. The editorial, however, triggered some interesting thoughts for me.

First, I remember when I was a kid growing up in a neighborhood near Liberty Park (I'm a South High alum!) my perceptions of Salt Lake City and surrounding communities. Murray was a ways away, in Sandy there wasn't much there. Hardly anything existed west of the Jordan River. Then someone told me about a supposed prophecy by Brigham Young that one day the Jordan River would be in the middle of the community. I just couldn't imagine that! There was pretty much nothing but the Kennecott mine and Hercules out there in those days.

Now, look where we are. The Jordan River is indeed surrounded on every side by growth and development. Now we're talking about growing up the Oquirrh hillsides. Amazing. By all means, let's plan for it and see what we can do.

The other thing that struck me is the vaguenss of our terms. The DesNews editorial starts out by saying, "'Smart growth' is more than a clever catch phrase. It's a philosophy about land use that focuses on making neighborhoods functional, liveable and committed to open space."

Actually, what the DesNews is saying here sounds more like the principles of New Urbanism. Smart growth is more related to containing growth in existing urban areas to minimize the cost of new services and facilities.

But both terms, smart growth and new urbanism are just old terms recycled, and in some ways catch phrases. Richard Carson writes about these two ideas a lot, and says, "Today we talk about the virtues of Smart Growth and New Urbanism. However, Smart Growth is just growth management (remember that term?) recycled. And New Urbanism is arguably an elitist attempt to change government policy for the few. ... It simply makes high density housing more attractive for upper income Americans."

Is that what is happening with Daybreak? To some extent, I think it may be. I'm not sure really how affordable their housing prices are, but I'm guessing there's not a lot of low-income housing there. Also, is it really smart growth to build all those new developments way out there on the slopes of the Oquirrh Mountains? They tout that they plan to have light rail there someday, and they may well do. But does that really make it smart growth?

Now, let me just say, I think this is pattern of development is virtually inevitable. Even such smart growth meccas as Maryland and Vermont haven't really been able to put much of a dent in what we would consider "sprawl" development. Let's just recognize this and plan to make them the best communities we can. After all, if I'm going to live in some far out suburb somewhere, it sure would be nice to have all the neighborhood and community amenities we can get.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Of RDA's and Ag Land Preservation(!)

This morning I attended the meeting of the RDA subcommittee of the legislature's tax reform task force, where the League of Cities and Towns presented their proposal for restructuring the RDA law.

Lincoln Shurtz (League staff), Lee King (Midvale City administrator), and Eric Jorgensen (SLC Councilmember), made the presentation and did a good job. Task Force co-chair Sen. Curt Bramble said there were many things about the proposal he liked (he also said there were some things he would adamnantly oppose -- don't know what those things were, other than eminent domain, which is an absolute non-starter for him). The ideas the League presented will now get kicked around by various groups and inidividuals, and we'll see what comes out at the end of the process.

The last agenda item for the subcommittee was an interesting one. Rep. Scott Wyatt from Cache County wanted to inform the group that he was opening a bill file to allow for county-option redistribution of local-option sales tax funds. He rather liked the idea that had been discussed earlier by the task force of changing the distribution formula for the local portion of sales tax to go to 100 percent population (no point-of-sale consideration), and he was afraid that change would not be forthcoming during the next legislative session. So his idea is to allow for it to be done by allowing each county (I think the cities and county governing bodies) to agree to a distribution formula, then have it put on the ballot for a vote of approval by the voters of that county.

Committee members asked why he felt so strongly about this idea. Rep. Wyatt responded by saying that he thinks this would be a good way to take away the incentive for local governments to seek commercial development to support their budgets. He cited the example of Highway 89-91 running from Brigham City to Logan, saying once drivers descend from lovely Sardine Canyon, they then drive through a long stretch of agricultural land to Logan, which gives the Cache Valley much of its wonderful rural character. The residents of Logan and Cache Valley value highly this image and experience.

Even now, however, he said, there are conflicts going on between the cities over annexation out to the highway, with the ultimate intention of allowing commercial development to bring in more needed tax revenue. By taking away the incentive for cities to seek commercial tax revenue, Rep. Wyatt feels more ag land, especially in this corridor, will be preserved.

Committe members asked him if there weren't other ways to preserve ag land beside changing the sales tax distribution formula. He said there were, but he did not support, for example, the proposal to raise a local option tax for funds for land conservation.

Sen. Bramble asked him why zoning couldn't accomplish what he wanted, since the cities and county had the power to zone. The answer was that this could happen, but it would take tremendous political will, since the temptation to cash in for revenue would be great. Sen. Bramble then said he had a lot of thoughts about how zoning could be more effective to do this, and he'd like to share them with Rep. Wyatt sometime (I'd like to hear them, too, since conservative legislators often tell us we can't be using land use regulation to deny property owners their right to develop!).

Anyway, it was an interesting discussion. If Rep. Wyatt's bill gets written and moves out for discussion, it should be interesting!

Add-on Aug.11: See the Trib article on this meeting.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Measure 37 Planners' Fault, Former Portland Metro Director Says

Read some interesting comments today about Measure 37, the extreme roll-back of land use regulation laws in Oregon (of all places), written by Richard Carson, former Director of METRO, the Portland regional planning authority. Carson is currently Community Development Director for Clark County, Washington, the rapidly growing area just over the Columbia River from Portland.

Carson describes the extreme effect of Measure 37 on Oregon's vaunted statewide land use planning and regulation system that has been held up as a model for many years. And indeed, he says, the system was visionary when it was first created.

But lack of response to public desire and progressive tightening of the screws ultimately led to its demise. A first attempt to overturn the system by a public initiative vote passed in 2000 with 54 percent, but ultimately the measure was overturned by the Oregon Supreme Court for technical reasons.

Carson says, though, planners and friends of planners didn't take the warning shot seriously, and four years later, viola, Measure 37 passes with 61 percent in favor.

Carson writes, "Certainly there is a lot of hand wringing and wailing by Oregon planners these days. But one thing you won't hear is anyone acknowledging that planning caused this revolt. Indeed, in typical response, the planning profession simply says, 'The voters just didn't understand. ...'

"Why is it never a failure on our part as planners to understand what citizens really want? Why is it always a failure on the citizens' part to understand what a wonderful gift we are giving them? Do we not understand that we are guilty of the sin of pride and the ballot measure was the price of our prejudice? Why do we continue to believe that the voters aren't capable of making intelligent decisions?"

Carson goes on to warn the rest of us around the West, saying, "Whether we planners like it or not, one thing is certain. Ballot measure 37 will plant the seeds of discontent nationally. Just as in 1978 Proposition 13 tax limitation movement spread from California to the nation..., ballot measure 37 will gain national political attention. Sadly, the legacy of the Oregon planning experiment will not be leading America into the planning of the 21st century. It will be the unraveling of the planning gains made by others in the 20th century."

I am often asked, in my role as Utah APA's legislative chair, if I am hearing any rumblings about something like Measure 37 being considered here. I must say, so far I have not heard anything. Knock on wood.

Let's see what happens, both here and in Oregon, in the near future.

Read Carson's essay here.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Ahhh, Referenda Heaven!

In the category of "I told you so," a couple of interesting developments in the Sandy City referendum issue.

First, Jeff Milchen, the director of Reclaim-Democracy.org in Bozemen, Montana writes about the Sandy City case, saying that the citizens there are getting their shot to express their desires, but how can big corporations be allowed to spend all that money to influence the outcome of the vote? It distorts the process, he says, and makes it difficult to get a real expression of "the people's will."

No kidding, Jeff. That's one of the things I have a problem with in putting such matters up for referenda votes, and what has happened in many places that have done so. Who gets their message out to the electorate the most effectively? Often, he with the most cash. Is that "good planning?" Pandora's box has been opened, and it's hard to shut it again once you see what starts coming out of it.

Next, there's a story in today's Trib that says members of the Save Our Community group (the successful plaintiffs in the Utah Supreme Court ruling) are considering taking the city to court again because they don't like the way the ballot title is being written. A member of SOC says, "You should be able to read [the 80-word ballot statement] and come to a wise decision. It is so ambiguous. It does not allow for a fair vote of the people."

Hence another of my objections to the referendum process for planning and land use decisions -- these issues are often so complex and nuanced, how do you do it justice in putting in on a ballot and asking people to make an up-or-down vote on it?

Many of the issues that we deal with in planning and land use regulation are better decided by discussion and give-and-take negotiation. This usually takes time and effort. Can such complex issues be summarized in 80-word statements for people to read on a ballot, many of whom will have spent very little or no time becoming familiar with the issues -- beyond what they may have read in the newspaper or heard in a TV or radio ad (paid for by one side or the other)?

Ahhh, welcome to referendum heaven. This is only the beginning, folks.

Utah County Gets Look at Bus Rapid Transit

A few days ago, the Deseret News reported that UTA displayed a sleek new rapid transit bus in Utah County for the folks to see and "covet." The bus was on its way to Los Angeles, and UTA officials asked to have the bus stop over.

But as the DesNews later wrote in an editorial, it's kind of ironic that this was done in Utah County, the place where elected officials aren't even sure they want UTA around, certainly not to provide any additional new funding for expanded transit service.

UTA, for their part, is following its plans and future blueprint. In the long range transit plans that I've seen for UTA, they have been discussing the need for an improved transit system in the Provo-Orem-BYU-UVSC corridor for some time. The idea that seems to make the most sense is a BRT system operating in a loop around these high-demand areas, where there are lots of students and faculty -- the kinds of folks that generally seem more inclinced (both financially and tempermentally) to use transit.

But Utah County officials, as I've noted in an earlier blog, seem less inclined to move forward on providing the funding for an expanded transit system in their county. And I know of several mayors in south Davis County who cannot wait for a BRT system there, where they are pushing the planning forward just as fast as they can go. Not to mention in several locations in Salt Lake County

Hmmmmm. Where to put those scarce resources?

Skybridges in Salt Lake's Future?

A couple of days ago, on the Doug Wright show on KSL Radio, I listened to Mayor Rocky Anderson talk again about the proposed downtown redevelopement project by the LDS Church of the two downtown malls and other areas. While I disagree with Mayor Rocky on a number of things, I do agree with him that public involvement in the planning of those areas is important and should start soon. I think the longer the LDS Church and their developer of choice, Taubman Associates, wait to involve the public, the more contentious the process could become as the public perceive that all the major decisions are a "done deal."

The city will have to go through a public process in reviewing and approving the project -- it may be unfair to put them behind the eight ball by presenting them a final concept and saying "don't change this much or we'll walk away!"

One of the issues Mayor Anderson raised is the potential for a skybridge between the two malls. He decried the idea, saying it was a bad one that hasn't worked well in other places around the country. He may be right.

The Tribune today published a story from the New York Times about skybridges, saying that many cities do not like them because they keep people off the streets, and some are trying to remove them.

I tend to agree with this view. A couple of years ago, I had occassion to spend some time in Oklahoma City, which has an extensive system of skyways. There was absolutely no pedestrian life at the street level -- everyone during the daytime was moving around on the skybridges. I have rarely seen downtown city streets as dead as those I saw in Oklahoma City, so I think there is a valid point.

On the other hand, my oldest soon spent considerable time living near downtown Minneapolis, and he said the skybridge system there is great, everyone loves it, and street life in the city doesn't seem to be that affected by it.

Now, the one that may be proposed by Taubman for Salt Lake City may be only one bridge connecting the two redeveloped malls, so the impact on downtown Salt Lake may be minimal. Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce President Lane Beattie was also on the Doug Wright show right after Mayor Anderson, and he emphasized that the skybridge may be needed to connect the two malls to make them function more like one, and that may be valid. There isn't an entire system of skybridges planned here.

But let's be cautious about this. Downtown Salt Lake City streets are already pretty light on foot traffic and storefront businesses. Let's not make it worse.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Sandy Developer Petitions Court for Rehearing on Referenda Ruling

On Wednesday, the DesNews and Trib both reported that developer Boyer Company and landowner Gibbons Realty Company filed a petition with the Utah Supreme Court asking the court to rehear certain issues with regard to the referendum ruling by the court at the beginning of July.

The petitioners specifically ask the court to, among other issues, reconsider their written opinion that "all acts taken by a city council organized pursuant to the council-mayor form of government are necessarily legislative and subject to referenda." They cite four other rulings in their petition where the high court has previously ruled opposite, saying there are actions the council undertakes that are administrative.

The difference between legislative and administrative matters is an important distinction, as administrative matters are not subject to referendum.

We'll see if the court will even take up this issue again.

On Thursday, I participated in a panel presentation at the Western Planner/Utah APA conference at the Homestead, on referenda and initiatives in planning and land use regulation. The other panelists were George Shaw, Sandy City Planning Director, and James van Hemert, Director of the Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute in Denver.

We had a good discussion there on the apparent gain in popularity of using referenda to overturn zoning decisions. My question always goes to why we spend the time and effort we do on general plans, if rezone decisions can then be overturned by a public referendum effort. What value was the plan and planning process, then?

James van Hemert pointed out that this trend makes it all the more important that we try hard to have significant public involvement in development of our general plans and thus minimize the public's feeling for the need to go to a referendum.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Wasatch Front Growth...Well, Grows

A couple of interesting stories in yesterday's and today's papers about growth in Box Elder County and in Cache County. State legislators took a road tour up to Cache, and among other things, heard pitches on ag land preservation.

The Wasatch Front truly does extend now from Tremonton to Santaquin, maybe even to Nephi (there are a number of Provo area commuters living in Nephi!), with an appendage of associated growth over the mountain into Cache Valley. The Trib story on growth in Willard so echoes in my mind of some of the early growth concerns that occupied Davis County communities 25 years ago. Learn from us! Don't repeat the mistakes we made! Alas, it looks like they're going down the same roads we did. What is it about human nature that prevents us from learning from the experience of others? Do we think we're somehow different than those other schmucks?

In Cache County, the Trib reports that legislators heard impassion pitches from folks about allowing for local option programs to preserve ag land. It's always been interesting to me that one of the most conservative areas of our state has had such staunch proponents of land conservation. Evan Olsen, a Cache farmer and former state legislator, and one of the more right-wing guys I've know (skeptical of many planning programs, he), was an avid supporter of land conservation. And he'd get shot down every year in the legislature by other conservative lawmakers. And it looks that way again this year, with Senate President John Valentine saying about Sen. Craig Buttars' (another very conservative Cache legislator) proposed ag land conservation bill, "That probably won't happen."

The DesNews reports, "The most excitement -- and the speech which received the biggest applause -- was actually from House Minority Leader Ralph Becker. ... 'When we have surpluses of hundreds of millions of dollars, we should be able to find some money to help preserve those lands,' he said."

Way to go, Ralph.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

More on Transportation and Urban Form

It's been a while since I've blogged -- just getting too busy, I guess. The Western Planner conference is coming up, and I had to get two presentations ready, which took up all my free time when I usually blog...

Alex Marshall has a couple of interesting essays on his website relating to sprawl, urban form and transportation. He says some interesting things.

He says, "Allow me to say something provocative, which is: It is conceptually very easy to control or even stop sprawl. Simply stop building or widening roads on the periphery of metropolitan areas. Even without throwing in a moratorium on extending water and sewer connections, low-density development would dry up in a decade or so without the benefit of new freeway off-ramps, or new suburban boulevards cutting through virgin farmland..."

Well, sure, if you don't build the new roads so people can get out there, there won't be any "sprawl." But the rail and transit systems that gave rise to dense cities were built in a time when most people did not have cars because they were too expensive. The general population is now wealthy enough, and the cost of cars has come down enough, that cars are ubiquitous, everyone had one, eveyone wants one, and they want roads to drive them on. Can we realistically go back to funding transit primarily and not roads?

More likely we will wind up funding roads and transit. What kind of urban form will that give us?

Marshall goes on, "Transportation decisions are the important ones. Growth boundaries are great tools, but in the long run they are just as important in saying where transportation dollars will be spent, as where private development can occur. I've sometimes wondererd if all the fights over zoning are an elaborate ruse to cover up the real decisions being made by the various state departments of transportation. They are the real designers of cities today."

Interesting stuff.