Durable Growth, Government

Anti-developer animosity grows as returns shrink

Urban setting in Saratoga Springs, New York

Urban setting in Saratoga Springs, New York

I recently engaged in spirited comments with the proponents of Sonoma’s Ballot Measure B.  (As a reminder, I support the thinking behind Measure B, but not the wording.  I find the text is anti-development, whereas I’d prefer a pro-urbanist slant.  In Sonoma, the two approaches, anti-development and pro-urbanist, may end in the same place.  But I nonetheless prefer making urbanism the star rather than making development the villain.)

During the comments, which were on Petaluma Patch, one of the Measure B proponents resorted to the default argument, contending developers were fundamentally immoral and would muster an army of attorneys and consultants to get land-use approvals, justifying the draconian provisions of Measure B.

It was an argument I’ve heard many times.  I considered responding in the comment chain, but decided to hold my thoughts until today.

In land-use meetings, particularly those that involve the general public, I often hear developers demonized in terms similar to those used by the Measure B proponent.  Nor does the vitriol run in one direction only.  Sitting in the board rooms of developers, I’ve heard city planning staffs similarly characterized as eager to wring every last penny from the wallets of developers.

Unfortunately, both sides are often right.

Land-use entitlement is an unavoidable source of conflict.  Balancing the good of the current residents versus the developer’s bank account versus the good of the future users of the new development is a complex matter.   There is no system of government in which a good balance can be found without pushing and shoving.

But the battle has escalated in recent years, and it has escalated on both sides.  Cities have put increasing burdens on developers in the form of increased fees, additional pre-development studies, and more levels of approval.  Meanwhile, developers have become increasing effective at meeting the letter of the zoning code if not the intent and at deploying attorneys to make perversely valid legal arguments.

To me, the reason for the escalation is obvious: StrongTowns is right, and the current paradigm of drivable suburban development is collapsing on itself.  There are fewer dollars available to meet developers’ return on investment and to maintain aging infrastructure.  And when there are fewer dollars available, the battle over the remaining dollars becomes ever more fierce and focused.

The problem is that our communities lose three ways when this battle ramps up.  First, every dollar spent in legal fees or unnecessary studies is a dollar that could have been better spent on quality development or infrastructure maintenance.  Second, when we’re busy scrabbling for dollars in the present, we’re not thinking about future obligations, the same disregard of life-cycle costs that got us into our current cul-de-sac.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, making development a cutthroat game results in development firms growing in size so that they can manage risks across multiple projects, offering uniform looking designs across the country so they can minimize design fees, and cutting every construction cost possible to recoup the expenses of the entitlement process.

And therein lays the rub.  The more that we complain that developers are villainous, the more we facilitate a system in which development follows the form that we despise.

If Joseph Heller were still alive, his next novel might be about land use in the 21st century.

Meanwhile, cities are responding to constituent animosity toward developers and developments by instituting ever more rigorous standards and processes.  (One example that perversely amuses me: Developers often go through multiple hearings to secure approval for new home color palettes.  But most homeowners are legally allowed to paint their houses purple and pink the day after they close.  The regulatory burden on the developer serves little real purpose.)

I’m not pointing fingers in this escalation.  Indeed, I think that both sides are responding rationally to their stimuli.  The problem is that rational responses aren’t what our communities need.  Instead, what we need is to change the stimuli.

So here’s a thought.  What if a city were to carefully define several projects needed to move the city ahead?   (It should go without saying that the projects should be urbanist.)  If a developer was to agree to conform exactly to the project description, the regulatory path would be smoothed.  City staff would be told to prioritize the project.  No unexpected conditions would be imposed.  All fees would be negotiated before the developer began work.  Planning commissions and city councils would give early reviews and approvals.  Even the building department would give priority inspections.

There isn’t a new idea.  Variations on this concept have been tried over the years.  But it may be time to return to the idea and to take it to the highest level possible.

Of course, implementation would have its hurdles.  Somewhere, a perverse city council would decide that a big box at the city limits with acres of the parking should receive preferential treatment.  I’d hope that Sacramento can set reasonable constraints on the process, but acknowledge that Sacramento can also run amok at times.

It this process possible?  Would it truly give us the development that we need for ourselves and for future generations?  Probably not on both counts.  But trying is better than throwing dirt clods.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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