Sunday, April 16, 2006

Sutherland President Responds, Knocks "Quality Growth"

Wow. Sutherland Institute President Paul Mero responds to criticism of Randal O'Toole's study on the costs of smart growth (see previous blog entry) with a rather strident opinion piece published in this morning's DesNews. Where to begin to respond?

Mr. Mero implies that a move toward quality growth strategies would circumvent the free-choice pattern of development we now have when he says, "Every totalitarian scheme is based on efficiency -- do what we say, when we say it, and you will have a tremendous quality of life." Well, how does Mr. Mero think the zoning and development regulations we currently have in place came about -- primarily through the free-market? In fact, part of the problem we have with development today is that government regulations are too strict -- do not allow the different styles of development that are advocated by quality growth and that some developers would like to pursue. There is nothing sacred or particularly free-market about the style of development that goes on today -- much of it was established by regulation a number of years ago. Part of the quality growth strategy is to loosen up regulation -- something Mr. Mero openly supports.

Aside from the "character assault" Mr. Mero engages in when he says things like "quality growth advocates persuade and then parade well-known community and business leaders to represent its public face. There is no socialist quite like a capitalist one...," he implies government collusion to "aggresively...pursue 'green' agendas." I would suggest Mr. Mero take a look at the kinds of things that are being actively advocated by organizations like the Urban Land Institute, which is made up predominantly of private-sector developers. The developments these folks are working on generally encompass things that are part of the quality growth "agenda," and they are calling for a loosening of regulations to allow them to happen.

Mr. Mero says, "Has a Utah city or county council been involved with policies limiting the number of building permits because a community is growing too fast?" as part of his support for the idea that quality growth is meant primarily as a way to restrict development and growth. My own experience over the years has been that there have been attempts by a few local governments over the years to actually restrict the rate of growth, but in most cases communities try to find ways to accomodate it in the best way they can. And often such accomodation causes outcries from citizens that the elected officials are in the back pocket of the developers, letting them do whatever they want.

What is wrong with a community that is besieged by a sudden rapid surge in growth and that is unprepared for its infrastructure and community character to accomodate such growth, to call a short time out to get its act together before the flood gates are opened? Usually that is the case, as these towns impose temporary moriatoriums on growth so they can better respond. Most cities accomodate the "free-market" demand for growth, whether they are ready or not. Would Mr. Mero have communities accept such growth without any plan or preparation?

"A local government's interest in housing policy should focus on health and safety. The marketplace primarily should be relied upon to determine decisions about where we live and how we live," Mr. Mero says. Sometimes that health and safety concern means a community must limit or stop growth temporarily while its water facilities or sewage treatment capacity is expanded to accomodate that growth. And if development can be tweaked to reduce the cost of that overall infrastructure to all the taxpayers, is that bad?

My experience with quality growth, at least in Utah, is that it is primarily about influencing the style of development, not stopping it, and not causing it to be more expensive. Sometimes homes in those kinds of development are more expensive, but generally because those developments are more desireable and hence the price is bid up by the free market.

No doubt, Mr. Mero's column will likely generate some interesting discussion in the next few weeks.