Why Conservatives should SUPPORT Smart Growth

I have come across a number of blogs from conservatives that attack Smart Growth – land use planning to revitalize older communities, protect sensitive areas, and enable more walkable neighborhoods – based on fundamental misunderstandings of what Smart Growth means for government control of our choices as well as for improving the quality and property values of our neighborhoods. I wanted to reply to these arguments and show how Smart Growth policies actually are resonant with true conservative values.

The key values that I want to highlight are economic freedom, limited government, and responsibility.

Economic freedom, in the context of Smart Growth, means that people are free to choose where to live and how to build their homes and run their businesses on their own property. Today, these freedoms are restricted by government, and by informal regulations in the lending industry. Smart Growth policies seek to relax these restrictions.

Let’s start with an emotionally troublesome example. Suppose you own a home in suburbia and are becoming concerned about your mother’s ability to live independently. You want to construct a small house on your property, connected to yours, but with a separate entrance.

In most suburbs, local land use plans will not let you do that. You would find that your land is zoned for one unit per lot and the second unit is illegal.

Suppose you just wanted to make some money, and you decide to replace your 80 year old house, which is falling into disrepair, with a six-unit condo development. You would move into the top floor unit. This idea would be illegal almost everywhere! And let’s not get into what would happen if you wanted to replace your house with a mixed use development that would include office, retail, and entertainment space as well as housing units.

Businesses also face similar limits on their economic freedom. If I as a developer want to build a store or an apartment building, the town usually requires that I provide a fixed amount of parking, even if it is very costly, whether my tenants or customers need it or not.

These are not merely local initiatives. You can see this because they look so much alike from the North to the South and from the coasts to the center of the country. That’s because model zoning ordinances created by the federal government in the 1920s are still the basis of much local zoning.

The “Standard Zoning Enabling Act” was enacted as the legislative response to Herbert Hoover’s attempt to address “the moral and social issues that can only be solved by a new conception of city building.”  In other words, sprawl-inducing zoning was an attempt by the federal government to make local land use decisions more restrictive to the property owners in the interests of what conservatives now call “social engineering.” Mr. Hoover, who was Secretary of Commerce in the early 1920s and then went on to be President, convened an advisory committee to implement this act in 1921, and the first model ordinance was published in 1924.

Informal regulations are equally effective at taking away my freedom. When I was trying to buy an apartment in the most location efficient neighborhood west of the Hudson River—the one where transportation costs would be the lowest-- I was told by the lenders that I couldn’t afford the asking price, and would be forced to choose a house where I didn’t want to live that would actually cost me more, because of the amount of driving I would have to do, than the home that I wanted. Many of my friends succumbed to these regulatory pressures and moved to outer locations against their preferences. I was fortunate enough to find one bank that would qualify me based on income that looked dubious to me but was able to satisfy their underwriters.

Similar biases in lending criteria apply to developers who want to build smarter developments compared to those doing sprawl-style business-as-usual.

Conservatives support limited government, and Smart Growth policies relax government interventions into the real estate market. They also reduce the government role in transportation. How can advocates of limited government encourage a system in which governments spend over $100 billion a year on roads, which are then offered to users for free? Yes, there is the fiction of a gasoline tax paying for road construction, but taxes are not the same as user fees. The sales tax on my camera does not go to support free downloads of photo software or repairs I may need over time, and the taxes on my bottle of wine do not support viticulture research or even the costs of alcohol abuse.  Smart Growth infrastructure, which includes a better balance of sidewalks, roads, buses, trains, and bicycle infrastructure, costs the government less and allows user-fee recovery of a portion of the costs, at least for transit modes.

What about financial responsibility? A dumb growth pattern imposes costs on others without enforcing responsibility for paying them. Sprawl leads to much higher rates of traffic accidents causing death, injury, and property damage, often to innocent bystanders. It leads to greater air pollution and its corresponding health impacts. And it leads us to spend hundreds of billions of dollars annually on importing foreign oil.

Smart Growth looks at these issues in a holistic way. It does not advocate eliminating land use planning, nor letting anyone borrow money regardless of their ability to repay. But in many ways it does reduce the heavy hand of government and other big bureaucracies to tell you what to do.

The market prefers smarter growth. The government, more than anything else, needs to stop barring the way.