J.D. Tuccille
"A statesman is a dead politician. Lord knows we need more statesmen." — Opus
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    Note: The piece below was published in the Arizona Daily Sun on Sunday, July 15, 1999. Earlier, it was included in briefing packets submitted to the Flagstaff Planning Division, Coconino County Community Development Department, and all members of the Flagstaff City Council and County Board of Supervisors.

    Sprawl, growth, development — whatever you call it, it's an 800-pound gorilla of an issue across the country and one that has landed in Flagstaff with a deafening "thud." With its open spaces and stunning views, northern Arizona is a magnet for people who enjoy the outdoors. That means that the Flagstaff area draws a steady migration of people who want to live near the mountains and the elk, but who worry themselves that the wonders of nature will be crowded out by nature-lovers. The result of such concerns is the proposed Flagstaff Area Regional Land Use and Transportation Plan, which purports to protect open spaces and prepare the region for a growing population.

    It just so happens that I've recently had the opportunity to survey the literature on growth-management plans. Through the miracle of the Internet, a modern invention that lets folks like me crowd into Flagstaff, I work for the Chicago-based Henry Hazlitt Foundation, which ties together researchers and think tanks around the world so they can share their data without reinventing the wheel. In December, I prepared a Policy Spotlight — a sort of intellectual banquet for policy wonks — on growth management and land use. I pulled together research from such sources as the Thoreau Institute's Randal O'Toole (whose columns sometimes appear in the Daily Sun as part of Writers on the Range), the Cato Institute, the Pacific Research Institute, and the Political Economy Research Center. They all came to the same conclusion: Coercive schemes like the Flagstaff growth plan are a bad idea.

    The Mecca for most modern planners is Portland, Oregon, where growth became an issue long before it hit the headlines in the rest of the United States. Over two decades ago, the city and the surrounding region adopted a plan including growth boundaries, mixed-use neighborhoods, infill and redevelopment, expensive public transportation, and a host of other catch-phrases and concepts that appear in Flagstaff's plan. The result? According to a study by the Reason Public Policy Institute, "[s]ince the passage of Oregon's growth-management laws, the cost of housing in urban areas has increased significantly. Oregon's housing markets now rank among the nation's least affordable in the nation."

    The reason for this should be obvious. Portland hemmed itself in with a growth boundary that strictly limited the land available for housing. Even with infill, which actually reduces open space within the boundary, property prices rise and squeeze out the low end of the market. The original idea was that mandating that people live cheek-to-jowl in increasingly dense neighborhoods would prevent such skyrocketing property values. But people don't always do what planners tell them to; density never reached intended levels, because folks don't necessarily want to live in the fashion of their grandparents, with their neighbors' elbows in their ears. And when people do submit, they can do so in perverse ways; the infill and density requirements have resulted in big homes built on tiny plots, further escalating costs.

    Portland-style growth plans also run into a philosophical problem. They're overt attempts to make people live the way the planners like. As such, they have to intrude on the tradition of individual decision-making about private property to an extent that leaves title in private hands, but control in bureaucrats' offices.

    Such mandates not only break down private property's valuable protection for personal autonomy — sort of a growth boundary on government power — they're also purely arbitrary. The current crop of planners' preference for dense, mixed-use settlements is a reaction to the very different sort of development mandated by planners of decades past. There's no reason to believe that the planners of the year 2020 won't have yet another vision of the good life that will require new restrictions on property that contradict today's "smart growth."

    At first look — and at second — northern Arizona is an unlikely candidate for growth controls of any sort since it's an unlikely candidate for runaway growth. Only 14% of the land in Coconino County is privately owned, with 49% of the land held by various agencies of the government, and the rest comprising Indian reservations. Unless the bureaucrats who tout growth management engage in their own frenzy of land speculation, the deer and the elk won't be chased into the Grand Canyon by bulldozers anytime soon.

    Of course, there has been development around Flagstaff as the population has expanded and an area that was once wilderness has become merely sparsely settled. The 18,000 square miles of Coconino County now contain a bit less than 8% of the population of Manhattan Island. Construction is certainly noticeable to long-time residents, but it's concentrated along well-traveled routes within short distances of existing population centers. And that construction will continue, growth plan or not, as long as people choose to move here.

    But that doesn't mean there's no place for reasonable efforts to preserve open space. The Thoreau Institute's Randal O'Toole has created a detailed plan for rural areas like Flagstaff, and others have proposed variations on existing approaches. These plans generally include:

    • Eliminating the subsidies that governments often offer to developers, so that they must shoulder the full cost of their efforts
    • Using private land trusts to purchase land for preservation in voluntary transactions. Costs can be reduced by purchasing conservation easements that leave the land in individual hands but eliminate the threat of development.
    • Allowing people to purchase and settle private property as they wish, as long as they shoulder the full cost of importing services, or do without.

    In addition, O'Toole's plan includes provisions for enhancing the economic viability of rural areas as traditional industries are displaced by tourism and recreational activities — something that Flagstaff knows all about.

    Such an approach preserves open spaces and beautiful views for the future without importing counter-productive authoritarian schemes. We can keep our vistas — and our tradition of respect for private property and personal liberty. See:

    J.D. Tuccille is a Flagstaff resident. He works as a Senior Editor for the Henry Hazlitt Foundation's Free-market.net and Editor of Civil Liberties.

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    Don't miss:

    "Flagstaff Area Regional Land Use and Transportation Plan"

    Diktat from the mouths of the commissars.

    "Spotlight on Urban Sprawl"

    Exhaustive studies, commentary, and news indicating the failure of Portland-style authoritarian growth management policies and the superiority of non-coercive alternatives.

    Thoreau Institute's
    "Transitions: New Incentives for Rural Communities"

    A detailed, non-coercive growth management plan, using rural Wallowa County, Oregon, which faces many of the same challenges as Coconino County, Arizona, as a case study.

    Reason Public Policy Institute's
    "Don't Portlandize America"

    Portland, Oregon, which was the first community to adopt "smart growth" restrictions, has suffered skyrocketing housing costs and political strife as a result.

    "Portland: Smart growth's bad example"

    Portland, Oregon, is the poster child for "smart growth" imitations on private property use and living patterns, but residents have to suffer the reality of high costs, congestion, and political interference in property use.

    Cato Institute's
    "Smart Growth at the Federal Trough: EPA’s Financing of the Anti-Sprawl Movement"

    The federal government has chosen sides in the urban sprawl debate. This study shows how the government supplies funds, via EPA grants, to "anti-automobile and anti-suburb" groups. The report is in Adobe PDF.

    Copyright 1999, 2000 Jerome D. Tuccille. E-mail