November 19, 2004

Environmental Zoning Revisited

I was glad to find that my take on environmental zoning sparked so much discussion, and that readers brought up a number of good points. A hopefully representative sample:

Jack K.

...this is exactly the sort of thing that resulted in passage of Measure 37 here in Oregon (and was actually passed in a different form a few years ago but was found unconstitutional by the state Supremes on a technical point). It requires compensation for land owners who have lost property value because of land use management decisions or modification of the land use laws to allow the desired use. It's an over-reaching law that leans too far in the direction of developers at the expense of the protection of zoned agricultural and forest land and wetlands and streamside zones and such, but there were simply too many parables of property owners trapped by unbending ordinances and perhaps overzealous application of land use laws to really allow a clear view of the true potential ramifications of the law. There probably was an opportunity at some point between the first and second passage for the various players to get together and reach an accord that would have worked better, but nobody likes to play that way anymore...

Scott M.

...We can't compensate these landowners. It would put us on a slippery slope. Compensating landowners would be admitting that zoning is equivalent to a "taking" by the government. Admit that anywhere, and zoning will be eroded everywhere eventually. Imagine a land with no zoning -- and that means no zoning restrictions: unmitigated sprawl and inappropriate (but extremely profitable) land uses would crop up everywhere the market would support them. ...

serial catowner

...Yes, it would be nice to pay the landowner and get a clear title to some uses of the land. But that would be paying blackmailers. The fact is we already have the right to regulate activities. Start greasing every squeaky wheel with greenbacks and there's not telling where it will end.

The fact is that these landowners hoped they could subdivide and sell their land and stick us with the bill for the services we'd need to provide to keep their subdivision from becoming a poisonous slum.

Others are whining about wanting to do inappropriate stuff, like clearing land to build a riding arena. For heaven's sakes, south King County has plenty of cleared land for those purposes. Forty years ago we banned non-water-related uses from the shoreline and it's one of the best things we've ever done. Now it's time to say no more cutting when there's lots of cleared land on the market.

Is that a darned shame that people thought we'd keep building freeways and county roads forever and land hoarding was like a free ride on the government development machine? Not in my book, and the only retirement fund I have is five acres and a mobile.

In practical terms the best way to offer any relief financially is through tax abatements.

However, the simple fact is that land speculation is risky. Banks won't loan on it. Society as a whole can't afford to become the rich uncle for everybody who thought they'd make a million by investing in land. ...

Jack is coming at this from roughly the perspective I started at. How much can you do this sort of thing without triggering the next Tim Eyman crusade? In a fight between right and popular, popular usually wins. This isn't to say that the popularity issue is intractable, but it can't be ignored.

Scott makes an excellent point about the advance of the 'takings' movement. This idea has run so out of control that there are corporations suing governments for denying them the ability to make money at various enterprises those governments decided it didn't want to allow anymore. So when you talk about landowners and compensation, it's important to find an appropriate dividing line that separates the big fish from the individual investor.

serial catowner then makes a point I agree with very much, which is that it isn't the government's inherent job to bail out unsuccessful speculation in risky enterprises. And it's also true that local governments usually end up footing the bill for services that virtually no one wants to pay for out on the developing edge of suburban sprawl.

What to do? I don't know, but I like catowner's suggestion of tax abatement for affected landowners. Other zoning considerations affect tax rates, why not this one?

The thing is, our society has a lot of perverse incentives built into it. Businesses get to externalize the cost of ruining the environment, while taxpayers have to provide the funds for clean-up, or bear the burden of higher health care costs without compensation. But people feel helpless to do anything about the depredations of mega-corporations, and often, they don't recognize them as issues they even could do anything about. Our mega-corp owned media sure as heck isn't helping to educate the public any differently, either.

However, protecting the environment is fair game for a fight, like it or not. Everyone understands that it's a political issue, and it has the disadvantage of being science related, and therefore even harder to accurately discuss. Unless a major effort succeeds in getting a majority of people firmly behind land protection, it's going to be difficult to overcome the perception people have that it mostly affects people saving for retirement.

Of course, it probably wouldn't hurt if we had a strong social safety net in place. Everyone knows that most seniors face a choice between speculative investment and living on cat food if they make it to their 80's. Most people expect the same thing to happen to them, making it another political poison pill that can be dropped into any discussion of reforming the system. Again, we won't be able to have a rational public debate that favors the environment if it can be portrayed as a war on retirees.

Any other ideas on how to get around that?

Posted by natasha at November 19, 2004 05:31 PM | Environment | Technorati links |

Just remember, everyone: The tools of zoning were invented to prevent the kinds of mixed-use, mixed-income development that we now want to encourage. In fact, its original purpose was largely to protect property values and in some cases, also, to keep communities as homogeneous as possible.

Surely Oregon's Measure 37 has a potential blowback that could trigger change pronto. In fact, that's already happening surrounding efforts to exclude porn shops from certain neighborhoods in Portland. Once the traditional-values set sees what they've wrought, expect a quick reassessment.

Posted by: Jarrett at November 19, 2004 11:14 PM

Maybe one thing we should do is make sure the catfood is safe for us to eat. Some days it sure looks better than what I'm cooking.

In Mason County (Washington) we've had an interesting experience. The county power structure decided to make a point of fighting Growth Management, and they've tried to avoid obeying/enforcing the law. This has been checkmated largely by a few people willing to engage in legal battle, not for the faint-of-heart.

On another level, we have a high degree of conservation education in the schools, the roads department has installed numerous wide culverts to improve salmon spawning, a local tribe has arranged to dispose of fish carcasses (from harvesting salmon roe) instead of dumping them in Hood Canal etc etc- very hopeful progress in terms of understanding and compliance on the ground.

I don't know if the tasks that can be farmed out to many many people are getting done better than the legal battles, but I do know that very few people can afford to take part in a legal battle.

In short, everyone needs specific instruction on how environmental protection relates to their job. Basically, we should probably assume that people CAN understand concepts like impervious surface and runoff, and then make sure they do.

Posted by: serial catowner at November 20, 2004 04:05 PM

It didn't take measure 37 to make Portland, OR pro-development, harm trees and decrease proerty values. The city refuses to enforce a tree protection plan designed to save (what the city was told by the arborist, paid by the developer) a Spanish Chestnut, which is in fact a 140+ year old American Chestnut. Houses are going up inside the tree canopy, roots are damaged, and the city says their zoning is unenforcable because no funding was released to enforce tree protections. check the website out, help as you can. Thanks.

Posted by: Michael M at November 21, 2004 09:03 AM