When "SD" comes to your town
By Henry Lamb
is Sustainable Development, and it has probably already
permeated your town, county, and state. It was conceived at
the 1987 U.N. Conference on Environment and Development, and
entered the world at the 1992 U.N. Conference on Environment
and Development, in the form of Agenda 21. Since then, it has
infested nearly 150 nations, including the United States.
The symptoms are unmistakable. Tell-tale terms begin
appearing in local newspapers and local newscasts: urban
sprawl; open space; brownfields; infill; bike paths; public
transportation; visioning process; consensus; and
"somethingorother-2000." Then there are reports
about results of visioning process. Finally, there is a plan.
Suddenly, your town is a "Sustainable Community."
Typically, the "plan" for your sustainable
community will be named "Yourtown 2020," or
something similar, it will embrace several political
jurisdictions, involve a "commission" or
"council" with some measure of authority to
"oversee" the implementation of the plan, and it
will contain several components that are remarkably similar to
all the other "sustainable communities" around the
country. Virtually all of the components come from
recommendations contained in Agenda 21.
The plan is designed to limit urban sprawl; preserve open
space; infill dilapidated brownfields with public/private
partnership projects; provide bike paths and improve public
transportation; and do it all in a coordinated fashion with
all the other political jurisdictions in the region.
What could possibly be wrong with this objective or the
process that brings it about?
Much! To begin with, the concept of sustainable development
and sustainable communities, completely disregards a
fundamental principle of freedom that has been honored in the
United States since before our country was founded: a person
should be able to live wherever he chooses to live. In a
sustainable community, a person can live where he chooses to
live - as long as it meets the approval of the governing body.
Many sustainable community plans go much further than
defining where a person cannot live; they often define the
size of the home, the type of materials that may be used to
construct the home, and even the type of landscaping that may
be used. These restrictions are imposed, ostensibly, to
protect the environment.
The individual's right to live wherever he chooses is
rarely given any value at all. When the question is raised, it
is often disregarded in the belief that the so-called
"public good" outweighs the individual's rights.
This belief assumes that growth limits are a public good.
We challenge this assumption. Growth in a community is
evidence of economic expansion propelled by a free market. If
a person chooses to live ten miles from town, he must acquire
the land, build a home, provide transportation, and whatever
services he requires.
The argument in support of a growth boundary says that if
the person is required to build within the growth boundary,
the public will be spared the expense of providing roads and
utilities, and the avoided travel will reduce the demand for
fossil fuels and the pollution from automobile use.
This argument sells well, but it is not valid. The roads
and the utilities are paid for by the segment of the public
that uses them - not the public at large. If people choose to
live ten miles from town, they do so fully aware of the costs
they must incur to satisfy their desire. Why should the desire
of these people be less valid than the desire of others who
think they should not live where they choose?
Open space is the great bugaboo. "We have to preserve
open space for future generations," is the oft-quoted
reason for growth limits. Open space is a wonderful asset for
any town or community. The park systems in Chicago, and in
many other cities can certainly be described as a public good.
But should a city or county own land that is not a public
park, just land - owned for no other reason than to insure
that it is not developed?
The land acquisition fever that has descended upon federal,
state, and local governments is not for the purpose of
expanding parks and public areas; it is to insure that
development cannot occur on that land. This is an extremely
The practice interferes with a free market in real estate,
and thereby forces development to occur only where the
government thinks that it should occur. Once again, thwarting
the free choice of individuals. More importantly, when land is
acquired by government, it stops producing tax revenue, and
thereby increases the tax burden on the remaining private
property owners. What's even worse, the only way a government
can get the money to acquire land is to force taxpayers to pay
From this perspective, taxpayers are being forced to pay a
higher tax than would otherwise be required, to enable a
government to buy the land which will no longer produce tax
revenue, insuring that the tax bill for the remaining private
property owners will be higher than would otherwise be
Land acquisition has many faces. In some cases, it is an
outright purchase by the government from a willing seller. In
other cases, the government may use its power of eminent
domain to force a private owner to sell. Increasingly,
governments are resorting to the purchase of development
rights, and conservation easements, and third-party
arrangements with land conservancy organizations. The result
is still an interference with a free real estate market, a
reduction in tax revenue, and government-managed development.
A procedure that is said to be for the benefit of future
generations is actually a pox on future generations. The
current generation of land managers is assuring that future
generations are unable to use the land as they wish or deem
Look a hundred years into the future with the current
government land acquisition fever unabated. Governments, which
already own more than 40 percent of the total land area in the
United States, will own a much higher percentage, that we, the
taxpayers, have paid for. Perhaps more importantly, is the
quality of the land that is owned by government, or its
surrogate land conservancy organizations. The resources this
land contains will be owned and controlled by government. When
government owns the sources of production, it is a defacto
Land acquisition and land use policies embraced by
sustainable community plans dictate where people may or may
not live. Sustainable community plans also seek to control how
Getting people out of automobiles and into public transit,
or onto bicycles and foot paths is another common component in
the vision of a sustainable community. Using the flawed
argument that automobiles contribute to global warming,
community planners feel compelled to do everything possible to
force people out of their cars. Thus, the urban boundary.
Many communities are using some variation of the
"Community Unit" development concept. This idea
requires that any proposed development set aside a specified
percentage of the acreage in open space, sometimes as much as
50%, thereby doubling the price of the land for each dwelling.
This concept also requires the inclusion of specified
businesses, often with access by non-motorized vehicles, and
quite often, even requires houses to be constructed of
materials that meet certain "green" standards. These
"unit" designs can also prescribe the number of
houses that may be built within specified price ranges.
This is how governments are transforming what was a free
society into a managed society - and calling it a sustainable
The sustainable community process says that free markets
have produced unlivable communities and the visioners can
design communities that are much better than the ones
individuals have created on their own.
Sustainable development, sustainable communities, any
activity preceded by the word "sustainable," means
that some authority - not the private individual - decides
what is or is not sustainable. The word
"sustainable" should be replaced with the words
"government-managed" when considering any proposal.
Government-managed development, and government-managed
communities are not quite as inviting as sustainable
development and sustainable communities. They are the same,
however. You can't have one without the other.
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