Wednesday, September 20, 2006

How Big is a Region?

I attended the legislative committee meeting yesterday in which the proposed transportation sales tax was discussed. The bill eventually passed during the special session of the legislature later that day (see DesNews and Trib stories), which I think is a good thing, as it will give voters the option to increase funding for transportation needs, including transit! My gosh, the legislature actually took a positive stand on transit (albeit also combined with road projects).

The thing that I am finding interesting, though, is that this bill pushes the decision making about what to fund to the county level. It does require that the funds go to projects "of regional significance," and that they must be on the regional (or statewide) transportation plans, but the actual decision making is at the county level. The same kind of move was made last year with passage of the car registration fee increase, which is optional to the counties, and decisions on where to spend it is made on a countywide level, through Councils of Government.

This same trend is showing up elsewhere, as the Wasatch Front Regional Council recently decided to run their region-wide long range plan and the Transportation Improvement Plan (the 5-year project funding list) through the County COGs first.

I have been the administrator of the Davis County COG for some ten years now, and have long believed that some of the most effective (often, the ONLY) regional planning that we do is at the county level. These recent events simply serve to reinforce that notion. What we can't forget is that the Salt Lake Metro region is more than just 6 or 7 separate, independent counties - we need to make sure there are good mechanisms in place to coordinate between counties as well. Wasatch Front Regional Council is one way to do this for transportation, but there must be others for issues in addition to transportation.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Coming Attractions for 2007

First, I apologize for the spotty nature of my blog entries as of late. My home computer, which I took in to be fixed a week ago, was declared terminal by the techs at my local computer shop, and I am now in the process of looking for a new one. So I haven't had a consistent home base to work from, which makes blogging rather difficult. I work from where I can, but until my home computer issue is resolved, I guess it's going to continue to be hit and miss.

Now, as to the topic for this blog, I attended the Friday morning business session at the League of Cities and Towns annual conference, where Dan Jones and staff presented highlights from their recently conducted survey about public perceptions of local government. Some very interesting items were noted by Mr. Jones.

Most notable was the strong increase in citizens saying that growth and "overdevelopment" were among their chief issues of concern. Also, of public services provided by local goverenment that were identified by citizens, among the lowest rating in satisfaction was planning & zoning.

Dan stated that these indicators lead him to believe that growth, and the desire to stop or control growth, will be THE BIG topic for the municipal elections in 2007. He also said that poll respondents have been listing preservation of opens space as one of their top concerns, an item which wasn't even on radar screens in polling in previous years. Some of this seems to be connected to the desire to stop growth.

Utah, in my experience, has avoided much of the "stop growth at any cost" fever that seems to have swept many other states in recent years, but these poll results indicate that maybe the honeymoon is coming to an end.

Given what has happened in the last couple of years with developer-led charges in the state legislature for "liberalized" growth controls, we may be headed for a heck of a train wreck in the next year. This could be interesting to watch, if many of us planners weren't right in the middle of the whole darn affair.

More to come on this.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Hoist Up the Gangplank!

Arrgghh! My home computer went down several days ago, and I've had it in for repairs, and I haven't been able to blog easily (it's just too much effort to go to one of my kids' computers or something), and it's been such a target-rich environment out there! Finally I've figured out a way, and I must comment on an amazing juxtaposition of two opinion pieces that appeared on the editorial pages of the two main Salt Lake dailies in the last few days.

First, the piece by Bruce Wilson, retired CIO of Universal Studios who moved to Washington, Utah (just north of St. George), which appeared in the Trib on Sunday. Mr. Wilson laments the rapid pace of growth in Washington County, and figures that much of it is happening because local officials welcome and invite it. "Such growth could not occur unless many residents were rolling out the red carpet and inviting one and all to move to Washington County. ... The welcoming committee is headed by elected and appointed county and city officials."

"But why do they think that rolling out the welcome mat instead of putting up the stop sign is a good thing for Washington County?" he says.

The solution, according to Mr. Wilson? "Growth in southwestern Utah needs to be managed by tough minds, not soft hearts. Washington County will not be able to soft-heartedly satisfy the demand without destroying everything that made it so attractive in the first place."

Hmmm, interesting. Lots of thoughts come to mind on those comments, the primary one being, we call that the "gangplank syndrome." That is, "I'm aboard, now hoist up the gangplank and don't let anyone else in."

Now consider a piece by Thomas Sowell, senior fellow at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University, that actually appeared the Thursday before in the DesNews. Mr. Sowell's column is titled, "Left talks equality but practices elitism."

Sowell writes, "Monterey County in California is a classic example, though by no means is unique. A recent story in the Wall Street Journal quoted residents of that coastal community as saying how much they liked its lifestyle and ambiance -- as a justification of laws that make it nearly impossible for anyone with less money to live there. First of all, laws forbid building anything on three-quarters of the land in that county. Existing residents who support such laws don't own that land, but they can politically keep others from living on it, which is the whole point of much rhapsodizing about "preserving" this and "saving" that. Land prices skyrocket when the supply of land is artifically and drastically reduced (and demand remains strong), which means that housing prices become astronomical."

Now there is a lot that Mr. Wilson in Washington, Utah, says that strikes a chord within us all -- all that growth changes the very things we like about the community and makes it not so desireable any more. That is what has been part of the challenge in planning. But to simple shut the doors and not allow anyone else in?

Lots to think about in these two editorials. Read 'em and weep, friends.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Accomodating Density

Jim Wooten, associate editorial page editor for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, writes an interesting opinion piece about the appropriateness of density, given recent trends and statistics about traffic congestion in the Atlanta metro area.

Wooten says that while higher density development seems to be the "in" thing in urban planning these days, it may not be the smartest thing to do. "Every impetus economic and political is to create high-density development," he writes. "But unless that density feeds a concentrated employment center -- the nearly extinct downtowns of yesteryear, for example -- it's nothing more than high-volume, congestion-worsening traffic clutter."

Wooten cites the recent report released by the Census Bureau showing that several parts of the Atlanta area have some of the worst congestion and longest commute times in the nation. "One could argue that, once built, high-rise dwellings and high-employment centers would spring up. That has not been Atlanta's experience with rapid rail in the decades since the east-west line opened. And with the possible exception of the Lindbergh station, MARTA hasn't driven density around stations on the north-south line, either."

But Wooten is not entirely anti-density. He just argues that it should be placed where it can be accomodated. "The practical remedy is to ratchet down density in all but the places where roads exist to carry it. Just as water withdrawal permits exist, so too should jurisdictions be assigned traffic-addition permits for every major highway based on the road's carrying capacity. If cities and counties want to add traffic, they should be required to jointly fund new capacity."

Some interesting food for thought here. I'm reminded about the studies that show Los Angeles to be one of the densest metro areas in the nation, and also one with the worst traffic congestion. Higher density doesn't automatically mean more efficient transportation. As Wooten points out in his piece, and as we all know from experience, in today's world, people travel all over the metropolitan region for a variety of purposes. Finding ways to efficiently accomodate that kind of travel demand is difficult.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Two for One

Just read an interesting story by Ray Ring that appeared in the High Country News on July 24, about the drive by certain anti-government types to promote Measure 37-like laws in states all around the country by confusing (some would say pairing) them with the strong anti-Kelo fervor. It is something I have also thought to be the case, where the "evils" of eminent domain are intermingled with land use regulations in general and a strong case is made against both.

Ring, quoting John Echeverria, head of the Environmental Law and Policy Institute at Georgetown University, writes, "'The Kelo case is presented as a caricature in the news.' ... We talked about some of the horror stories, where governments use eminent domain in questionable ways. But those are few and far between. What's really going on, Echeverria said, is that, 'The property-rights advocates have exploited Kelo to advance a broader anti-government agenda.'

"Libertarians and property-rights activists believe that a huge array of common government regulations on real estate, such as zoning or subdivision limits, 'take' away property value. Therefore, they say, the government should compensate the owner, or back off. The extreme view of 'regulatory takings' is really at the core of this campaign -- not eminent domain."

With efforts underway in a number of states to get similar Measure 37 laws in front of voters or before state legislatures, Ring tracks down who is responsible for funding most of these organized efforts. He writes, "One key figure is the chairman of the board of Americans for Limited Government, Howie Rich. A real estate mogul based in New York City, Rich...(is) famour in libertarian circles for funding initiatives in the 1990s that imposed term limits on congessional delegations in 23 states... . This year, Rich says he has funneled nearly $200,000 through a group called Montanans in Action to back the Montana initiative... . Records in other states show that Rich has put $1.5 million into the California regulatory-takings initiative, $230,000 into the Idaho one, and $25,000 into the Arizona version.

"On the phone, Rich was confident of the rightness of his cause. 'I believe in the American Dream. ... I believe in free markets. I believe that ... government has been growing at an excessive rate, at the federal level and in many states. I'm happy to support local activists who are working to protect property rights in a whole bunch of states.'"

Rich notes, "While each initiative has its own sales pitch, they all deliberately tuck the notion inside the unrelated eminent domain controversy. The Los Angeles-based libertarian Reason Foundation mapped the strategy in a 64-page paper published in April, titled Statewide Regulatory Takings Reform: Exporting Oregon's Measure 37 to Other States. It recommends pushing 'Kelo-plus' initiatives, combining eminent domain reform with regulatory takings, to capitalize on 'the tremendous public and political momentum generated in the aftermath of the Kelo ruling...'"

So far, we've been lucky in Utah that we are not dealing with our own Measure 37-inspired effort, though we are about the only state in the West that is not. How did we escape? Probably because last year's SB170 was such a multi-pronged assualt on land use law, and it was home-cooked. We'll see if it stays that way.

The thing that is so disturbing to me is how easily people fall for these measures. I just recently saw a story in The Oregonian about a group of people in southwest Oregon had signed petitions and voted for Measure 37, but now that a property owner had applied for a Measure 37 exemption which would put a lot more development in the neighborhood, the same citizens had submitted a petition opposing the proposal. And this was not an isolated incident.

We live in a world of sound bites. Very few people take the time to examine closely what it is they are being asked to support. It seems to be the sign of the times!