Government vs. homeowners
What property owners can and can't do with their land is a hotly debated issue across the country. Typically, it pits homeowners who thought that their sizable mortgages bought them the right to make decisions about their land against local officials who issue restrictions and mandates regarding land use in the name of some claimed public good. Now, though, a bill pending in Congress may push both landowners and local officials to the sidelines and give federal bureaucrats the final word.
The so-called "Community Character Act," introduced by Rhode Island Senator Lincoln Chafee, would provide federal funds to assist state and local governments with urban planning efforts. Of course, the money comes with strings attached. To get access to the booty, local governments must meet a list of criteria, including requirements that money be used to "promote sustainable economic development (including regional economic development) and social equity" and enforce "approaches to land use planning that are consistent with established professional land use planning standards."
That's all very open-ended -- and legally binding. But just what does it bind people to do?
Well, for starters, it binds people to obey federal policies -- and that raises hackles in a country that was structured to concentrate political power at the state and local level. In announcing his opposition to the Community Character Act, Oklahoma's Senator James Inhofe called the measure a violation of the Constitution's Tenth Amendment and said it "undermines local control of important economic development and land use decisions."
Then there are the details of what federal officials would require localities to do. "Sustainable economic development" has become something of a catch phrase in recent years for government-managed economic activity. A National Center for Public Policy Research brief on the Community Character Act says, "The terms 'smart growth' and 'sustainable development,' which are the stated goals of the bill, are, in reality, buzzwords used by environmental extremists to promote no-growth and no-development programs."
In describing "sustainable development" as applied in practice, Tom DeWeese, president of the American Policy Center, warns, "That principle would be used to determine everything you eat, what you wear, the kind of home in which you live, the way you get to work, the way you dispose of waste, the number of children you may have, even your education and employment decisions."
Such claims about a bill ostensibly introduced "to promote improved quality of life" may seem extreme, but land-use planning has a remarkably authoritarian history. That authoritarianism has often been applied to abrupt -- and mandatory -- changes in policy, and has frequently resulted in unintended consequences.
In a 2000 paper penned for the Independent Institute, Randal O'Toole, Senior Economist at the Thoreau Institute, traced the history of land-use regulation. He warned, "the history of urban planning is the story of a series of fads, most of which have turned into disasters."
In fact, modern urban planners are trying to undo the very sort of development that their predecessors promoted. Where architect Frank Lloyd Wright remarked in the 1920s that urban concentration was "needless congestion -- a curse," modern planners want to mandate the densely populated communities that Wright tried to disperse. Dense cities are now thought of by the people who establish "professional land use planning standards" as more livable, more efficient and kinder to the environment than low-density communities.
To achieve their vision, planners have gone so far as to convert parks into apartment buildings, ban the construction of roads that suburban commuters might use to reach jobs in the city, and bribe or bully builders into abandoning plans for single-family homes in favor of high-density residential developments.
Unfortunately for the planners, many Americans don't want to live in dense cities and prove remarkably resistant to planners' mandates. The area around Portland, Oregon, is often held up as a model of modern land-use planning, but, offended by the micro-management of private property required by such planning, many people have moved beyond the boundaries of the planners' power. They prefer long commutes to restrictive laws and the expensive housing that such laws produce. Responding to constituents' concerns, some local governments have resisted imposing or enforcing restrictions.
In response, planners have turned to regional governing bodies that are harder to escape and more resistant to grassroots opposition. O'Toole writes, "Some writers are explicit that the purpose of regional government is to prevent local areas from democratically resisting smart-growth proposals."
Transferring the power to set land-use rules to federal officials is the ultimate step in diluting responsibility for government controls over private property - and in making those controls impossible to escape.
Homeowners and government officials have battled for generations over who gets to decide how private property is used. Despite the claims of its sponsors, the Community Character Act has little to do with improving the quality of life. Instead, it's an attempt by politicians to make sure that government officials win that fight.
This column was published July 26, 2002 by The Providence Journal