Sunday, March 05, 2006

Another Broken Promise

Normally, I save Pat McSweeney's columns for publication in Bacon's Rebellion, but his most recent report is too important and too timely to sit on. According to McSweeney, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine has yanked support for a bill that embodied his winning campaign issue: giving municipalities more power to block rezoning projects that would overwhelm the surrounding transportation system. This story has gone unreported as far as I can tell (in another example of the ongoing failure of the Mainstream Media to cover land use issues).

Here is McSweeney's account of what happened:

Just last week, Kaine had another opportunity to honor his campaign promise to give localities greater authority to control growth. He was pursuing an amendment that would add his legislative proposal to a House-passed bill dealing with the use of cash proffers for road improvements.

That House bill had been reported by the Senate Local Government Committee on a unanimous vote and had strong support in the full Senate.

Kaine abruptly withdrew his support for that tactic after actively pressing forward in that direction for more than a week.

The chief patron of the House-passed bill, who agreed to let Kaine use his bill as a vehicle to keep the governor’s growth proposal alive even at great risk to his own bill, felt let down by Kaine’s change of heart. Slow growth advocates expressed great disappointment upon hearing of the governor’s reversal.

Kaine’s official explanation was that he felt that the amendment might ultimately be rejected by the House of Delegates. Slow-growth advocates were more than willing to press ahead because they consider a recorded vote in the House on this measure a victory in itself.

The real reason for Kaine’s unexpected abandonment of this central element of his growth control strategy may be his desire to appease developers...
I don't know if Kaine cut a deal with developers or not. I'm open to the possibility that there's more to the story than McSweeney reports. And I'll be the first to say that I had problems with Kaine's campaign proposal, which I thought, if handled improperly, would have make development patterns more dysfunctional, not less. But if McSweeney's report is accurate, Kaine has some 'splainin' to do. First, he broke his promise not to raise taxes until after a constitutional amendment protected transportation funds from budgetary raids. Now, he is betraying his Smart Growth supporters on their core issue.

Kaine may get away with this maneuver in the short run because Virginia's political reporters have defined the transportation debate as a budgetary issue, all but ignoring the land use dimension, and the editorial writers in the major daily newspapers (save Richmond's) are salivating for tax increases. But betraying the constituency that gave him his winning edge over Jerry Kilgore -- and there is widespread acknowledgement that tapping the Smart Growth sentiment in Northern Virginia's suburbs put him over the top -- will not help Kaine govern in the long run.

Update: James Young at the Skeptical Observor has posted correspondence from Del. Robert Marshall, R-Manassas, who carried Gov. Kaine’s legislation in the House. A Marshall letter to Chris Miller, president of the Piedmont Environmental Council, confirms the basis of McSweeney’s column and, indeed, may have been the basis for it. For some strange reason, blogger is not accept a direct link to Young's article. Cut and paste this URL to your address line:


At 9:19 AM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

I don't see how you can advocate for more freedom in zoning in some cases and more restriction in others. We have already seen from the cureent zoning problems that if you give government power, it will probably find a way to use it badly.

If government wants to control how land is used, then it is perfectly free to buy it, and set it aside. Then they can face the issues of whether a) people are willing to spend the money to get what they say they want, b) whether it might be cheaper to provide the infrastructure, and c) the same problem the owner had, which is what to do with this valuable asset.

At 8:00 AM, Blogger Larry Gross said...

Unfettered land-owner rights - yes as long as you don't impact land and water external to your own land.

That means roads, air and water quality, and other infrastructure necssary to serve the demands imposed by the development of that land etc.

When you travel through the rural part of Virginia - that standard is often met. Farmers and their families live for many generations using their land in a way that does not impact their neighbors.

But when land is being converted to more intense uses that DO affects others - degrade the environment or impose infrastructure costs - then it IS the business of others who are represented by government.

I'm also not sure why Kaine pulled back - but would point out that the bill to allow essentially a morotorium on growth did not have strong GA support and perhaps it was done to maintain support for other land-use legislation.

Half-a-loaf approach. Get the things you can get - which will foster real change and avoid the dealbreakers... in the meantime.

I think what all Virginians want is the ability to turn down development proposals they don't want - whether it be in rural areas or densely populated areas and to essentially be able to control their own destiny without undue interference from external sources whether it be state government or private business interests.

I don't think the State knows best any more with private business interests than it does with local land use issues and when they impose laws on the localities it ought to be to protect the interests of citizens and taxpayers.

If citizens don't want a WalMart - then so be it. It's not up to the state to "protect" WalMart. It's up to WalMart to make their case to the locality.

At 9:55 AM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

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At 9:55 AM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

Doesn't every existing urban use affect air and water external to the property? When do we start imposing costs? One house per hundred acres, 50, 25, 10, 1? Do the early adopters get a free ride?

Isn't it said (not that I believe it) that existing residential uses only cover about 80% of their costs? Are we suggesting that every new lot be large enough to be self sustaining, otherwise they have to make a payment to their pre-existing neighbors, who live in the same regime, cost free?

I think you are right about the half a loaf approach. By reaching for the stars, both the developers and conservationists are seeking the unattainable, and both suffer negative press as a result.

Here is an example of the problems you get into:

Part of my property in Alexandria is low lying and adjacent to a streambed. The head of the stream actually begins one or two lots up from me. All of my neighbors backfilled up to the stream in order to enhance their lots, decades ago, an activity that is now prohibited. As a consequence they have assets that I am prohibted from gaining, and my property floods more. In fact, it might not even be a wetland had it not been for adjoining fill.

That streambed and low area is subject to much more flooding since a new shopping center and townhouse development were built a mile upstream, where no drainage problems are apparent. The flooding is not a hazard to me or my home: it merely repleneshes a wetland bog. Should I be compensated for flooding caused by my new upstream neighbors? Should their developments have been prohibited? It is not a big enough problem to sue over, but when is a nuisance a nuisance?

I get taxed at the same land rate as my neighbors for a third of an acre that is mostly underwater. When that land floods, it helps protect my neighbors downstream. Should I get a tax break? That flood plain is now costing me 500% more in taxes than when I bought it, yet it has not one bit more value.

Since the land is not and will never be usable, and since its present condition is a public benefit, why shouldn't the government own the property and relieve me the burden caused by their (relatively new) ordinances and adverse conditions they permitted? On the other hand, should I be permitted to backfill the swamp, increasing the flood potential below me?

I suppose I could have gone to the government when (if) hearings were held on those new developments. At the time, they were far enough away that I didn't understand what the impact might be (small as it is). Yet I could have gone in there and been an indignant neighbor complaining about incipient flooding, but that activity also has adverse extenal effects.

As I see it government does an inadequate job of protecting common resources, but if they did an adequate job, the costs would be so high we would put a stop to it (my points a, b, and c above). The regulations are squishy and subject to politically (or self interest) inspired imposition. There is no cost associated with objecting to anything your neighbor tries to do, so it is tempting to claim harm on a marginal basis.

I don't have any idea how to resolve this: land use issues are a political swamp. But, if the government allows free use of land (absent clear and present danger or nuisance) and if it simply purchases land it does not want developed, then everyone gets what they pay for.

At 1:06 PM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

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