Not So Smart Growth

November 28, 2003

Wall Street Journal: Review & Outlook

Arnold Schwarzenegger may be off to a good start on the economy but the environment is another story. The new Governor of California is the latest politician to embrace the environmental movement known as "smart growth."

We hope he knows what he's getting into.

Smart growth's objectives sound sensible enough; proponents work to promote mass transit, slow the development of farmland and rebuild inner cities.

In practice, however, smart growth often turns out to be pretty dumb.

In many communities, it drives up housing prices with costly regulations and limits on new construction.

Zoning restrictions and local development plans effectively dictate what can be done with private property.

Once-valuable land becomes locked into outmoded uses.

Mr. Schwarzenegger might take a look at what smart growth is threatening to do in South Carolina, where local greens are engaged in a particularly nasty battle against a collection of mostly African-American landowners.

The fight is over control of private property adjoining the 22,000-acre Congaree Swamp.

The swamp -- home to some of the tallest trees in the East and more than a gator or two -- was just named a national park.

Environmental extremists now wish to extend control over tens of thousands of acres of nearby private property in Richland County.

Richland's smart-growth agenda includes a land-use plan that raises minimum lot sizes, prevents clustering homes on rurally zoned land and could impose 50-foot buffer zones around all bodies of water -- including dry stream beds.

County regulations would also steer new development into three categories of "villages" to be built at rural crossroads.

Many of these are zoned for high-density, low-income housing -- but not for manufacturers or other high-paying employers.

Critics call them nonemployment villages.

Richland's biggest smart-growth proponents live in the wealthier northern part of the county, where residents tend to make their living in the state capital of Columbia.

Lower Richland, however, is rural and predominantly African-American.

Smart growth hits these landowners particularly hard because they are often only a few steps away from poverty.

They depend on farming, harvesting trees and opening small businesses on their land.

Sometimes they sell off several acres to developers or borrow money, using their land as collateral.

Parents typically set aside land for their children to build homes nearby, but now such family compounds will be prohibited.

Lower Richland landowners are fighting back.

One local leader is State Representative Joe Neal, a Baptist minister and until recently chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus.

Mr. Neal says he favors managed growth and zoning regulations.

But Richland's smart-growth plan goes too far because it will strip rural landowners of "their ability to leave their descendants a legacy of wealth."

At the statehouse, Mr. Neal, a Democrat, is finding plenty of friends in the GOP and among other rural Democrats.

They are considering how to amend state law to curb abuse.

Meanwhile, he and other local landowners are trying to delay formal adoption of the regulations through vocal opposition.

"In light of its impact on rural and minority landowners," this plan should not be
implemented, Mr. Neal told us.

Many of Richland's families have made their living off this land since their forefathers purchased it after being freed from slavery by the Civil War.

They've had to fight for it through Jim Crow, segregation -- and now, apparently,
through smart growth.

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