Smart-growth group pushes tough new land-use controls

Published May 1, 2002

The authority and rights of local governments and individual citizens may be restricted by tough new land-use controls spelled out in a 1,450-page legislative guidebook published by the American Planning Association.

The publication, Growing Smart Legislative Guidebook, urges the forfeiture of local decision-making authority to regional, state, and federal bodies. Copies of the Guidebook are being delivered to state and local legislators across the country.

Picture me this

“Picture two metropolitan regions of the United States in the not-so-distant future,” urges the Guidebook. Under one scenario, freedom of choice by local governments and individual citizens is painted as destructive to the public good. “Hoping to attract a large commercial or industrial development, they mortgage their future by offering tax incentives they cannot afford,” warns the Guidebook. Enlightened city leaders would like to set aside all the best, most visually enticing land, “but the elected officials in the region worry about the costs of acquisition and the loss of property taxes.” Small, old towns experience a burst of new growth, such that “every place looks like every other place.”

In the other scenario, government planners have stepped in to tell local communities and their individual citizens how they can and cannot use their property. “The region’s governments pride themselves on their willingness to … plan for the general good.” Taxes taken from one community (usually suburban) are given to another (usually urban), so “no local government feels pressured to accept a business at a site that is not optimal or on terms that are not in the public interest.” Cities and suburbs become one and the same. People in the centrally planned community are prodded to give up the freedom of their automobiles to instead commute by bicycles, buses, and trains, which are championed as “quicker, cheaper, and safer than automobiles.”

The most desirable pieces of property would be reserved for local wildlife. “The region’s leaders also initiated a long-term plan to purchase, in advance of development … scenic viewsheds that have been identified, mapped, and protected.” People are no longer allowed to enjoy wide open spaces, as “growth has been carefully planned in the region to avoid prime agricultural lands, which benefit from a comprehensive farmland preservation program that relieves the pressure to develop them.” Hard work and economic accomplishment no longer give parents the right to raise their families in a quiet, suburban setting, as “the region’s leaders have recognized an obligation to ensure that affordable housing is dispersed across the metropolitan area.”

According to the Guidebook, legislators must act now to eliminate the first of the two scenarios and implement the second. Suburban communities, the Guidebook admits, “had unquestionable attractions—large yards, garages, new schools, safe streets, and a frontier-sense of promise.” But the new era of government planners will teach us better, according to the Guidebook. “More and more people are acknowledging the social, economic, and environmental costs of pushing ever-outward and the need for more effective planning.”

Private property, local control old-fashioned?

The Guidebook and its smart-growth policies are a refutation of the American tradition of individual property rights. “People no longer believe,” claims the Guidebook, “as they did in the nineteenth century, that land is merely something to be bought or sold.” Instead, social planners will tell us which lands people can own and which lands are so valuable as to demand ownership and control by society (that is, government). “We see vacant, developable land as having competing social values,” claims the Guidebook.

While local governments would implement the land-control policies, the Guidebook insists the policies be rigidly drafted at the state government level. State land-control laws must entail “planning required with sanctions” (emphasis in the original). Failure to abide by state-dictated land controls must be backed by a significantly powerful stick.

Similarly, local governments must not only draft their land-use ordinances to comply with land-control mandates issued by the state, but they also lose the right to opt out of the land-control process. The Guidebook calls for “legislation that mandates planning by local governments. Under this alternative, a government could not exercise regulatory and related powers unless it has adopted a comprehensive plan that satisfies statutory criteria.”

The Guidebook urges strict protections against local governments using their traditional discretionary powers to circumvent state-mandated land controls. “Model statutes should anticipate the potential for abuse of planning tools and correct for it … [M]any local boards of zoning appeals were overstepping their authority and granting variances that, in effect, amended the zoning regulations.”

Smart growth doesn’t work

Many land use experts have less sanguine views toward central planning. Urban growth expert Wendell Cox of The Public Purpose points out that metropolitan regions with smart-growth policies have experienced an increase in traffic, pollution, and other urban ills.

“Let’s talk for a few moments about Portland—that leader in smart growth,” said Cox at a December 2001 debate on smart growth. “First of all, Portland sprawls more than Los Angeles. Its urban area is barely one-half as dense as Los Angeles, and will be less dense in 2040, according to Metro. Portland seems to be striving to become Los Angeles.

“Already Portland’s lack of investment in highways is showing. The Texas Transportation Institute indicates Portland’s Travel Time Index is worse than that of Atlanta, which is renowned for its traffic congestion. And things are not going to get better. According to Metro’s own projections:

  • “Traffic will be 40 percent more intense in Portland’s more dense environment in 2040 than it would have been if the urban area had been allowed to continue to expand.
  • “Transit will make little difference. Transit’s market share will rise from 3 percent now to 6 percent in 2040.
  • “By 2020, per-capita traffic delays will increase 350 percent.
  • “Despite huge increases in transit service by 2020, there will be a five percentage point drop in homes within walking distance of transit and a 2 percent decline in jobs within walking distance of by transit.

“This, Portland, is what you call a livable city?”

Transportation and urban growth expert Randal O’Toole, senior economist with the Thoreau Institute and author of The Vanishing Automobile and Other Urban Myths, has similarly shown that taxpayer-funded mass transit systems, which go hand-in-hand with smart-growth planning, are ineffective, prohibitively costly, and lead to a decline, rather than resuscitation, of inner cities.

“Cities that have emphasized transit over highways experienced the greatest increases in congestion over the past two decades. Data from the Texas Transportation Institute reveals that cities that concentrated on highways instead of transit did fairly well at minimizing the burden of congestion on their residents. This makes sense because few transit investments carry as many passenger miles as comparably priced highway investments.”

Beware the unintended consequences

The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) responded cautiously to the APA Guidebook.

While complimenting certain aspects of responsible community development, the NAHB, in conjunction with the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties, the National Association of Realtors, the International Council of Shopping Centers, the Self Storage Association, the National MultiHousing Council/National Apartment Association, and the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, authored a dissent that warned of many unintended, and negative, consequences.

Among the dissent’s concerns were:

  • A lack of certainty regarding construction projects, as virtually anybody could challenge and repeatedly re-challenge local building permits;
  • Vague and undefined prohibitions against development that threatens “the environment”;
  • The asserted right of people to re-zone their neighbor’s property under “community interest”;
  • A blurring of the distinction between “smart growth” and “no growth.”

“It is now up to individual states, counties, and municipalities to decide how they will use the ideas, recommendations, and model legislation offered in the Legislative Guidebook,” observed the NAHB. “The stakes are high for everyone.”

For more information …

About the American Planning Association’s Growing Smart Legislative Guidebook, visit the group’s Web site at

For reactions to the Guidebook and other smart-growth issues, visit the Web site of the National Association of Home Builders; The Public Purpose and The Thoreau Institute

You can also search PolicyBot, The Heartland Institute’s free online research service, for research and commentary on sprawl and smart growth. Point your Web browser to, click on the PolicyBot icon, and search for the Topic/Subtopic combination Government/Urban Planning.