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Three principles for better land-use policies

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The John Locke Foundation’s new City and County Issue Guide for 2014 is out. This guide aims to help local policymakers navigate problems facing county and municipal governments while maintaining a commitment to freedom.

One of the topics addressed by the guide is Land Use and Zoning. My entry builds on the work in previous issues by Michael Sanera, who prior to his recent retirement studied local government issues for JLF. In 2010 Sanera explained where the idea of land zoning came from and why:

Zoning to control land use originated in Germany in the late 1800s and was adopted in many parts of the U.S. in the 1920s. Progressives enthusiastically spearheaded the movement for adoption and expansion in the U.S. because it matched their ideology that experts should be empowered to remake society regardless of individual preferences and constitutional property-right guarantees.

Not surprisingly, having government officials remove decision-making over private resources from owners’ hands, thinking they could do better, resulted in negative unintended consequences:

Current complaints about urban sprawl, lack of mixed-use developments, and other detrimental land-use patterns can be traced to early zoning "best management practices" that strictly separated residential, commercial, and industrial uses of land. Today’s planners are attempting to solve problems not by eliminating previous zoning mistakes, but by creating even more complicated and restrictive land-use regulations.

It is also not surprising that government planners would address past mistakes like the old woman who swallowed the fly, by treating each policy failure not by admitting the mistake and removing it, but by keeping it and chasing it with sequentially greater policy failures. Sanera urged planners to "break out of their self-imposed planning dogmas" and instead "consider reforms that eliminate many current regulations and allow individuals to pursue their own plans for their private property."

To that end, I proposed three guiding principles for planners to restore more freedom and decision-making to property owners:

  1. Simpler is easier.
  2. Growth is good.
  3. Politics gets in the way.

The idea of simpler is easier is that land use should be based on simple as opposed to complex rules that help guide individuals in pursuing their own plans for using their land. It is based on "The Anaheim Solution," how in 2002 leaders of the city of Anaheim, California, successfully revitalized and stimulated billions of dollars in private investment into its run-down downtown and light industrial zone by applying free-market principles and trusting its landowners to find the best uses of their land.

The idea that growth is good used to be implicit but has been forgotten in the age of impact fees and adequate public facilities ordinances (APFOs) to "compensate" the public for the costs associated with increased growth. Research shows that the benefits of growth more than pay for its costs, while the fees and APFOs create problems rather than solve them.

Recognizing that politics gets in the way means depoliticizing the zoning process so that only those parties directly affected by property owners’ land-use decisions are allowed to comment on them. It means pulling back the reins on planners given too much discretion over land-use decisions (which is a favorable environment for graft, corruption, and favoritism). It also requires establishing a clear set of simple, flexible written rules such that approval is automatic once a development meets requirements.

The North Carolina Constitution recognizes "the genius of a free state," which we understand to mean the state being smart enough to trust its citizens with the freedom given them by God. Cities and counties can be that genius as well.

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Jon Sanders is an economist studying state regulations, that spreading kudzu of invasive government and unintended consequences. As director of regulatory studies and research editor at the John Locke Foundation, Jon gets in the weeds of all kinds of policy… ...

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