Community Character Act would allow more federal intrusion in local planning

'Character' Development? Jim Jeffords wants to run your local zoning board.


Tuesday, April 30, 2002 12:01 a.m.

Imagine if a Republican-controlled committee in Congress had attempted to keep the public and the media away from a key hearing and vote on, say, a bill to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. The outrage would have been deafening--and rightly so.

So how come we haven't heard more about an effort to ram through something called the Community Character Act? "Senate Democrats," the Washington Times reported, "barred the public from a committee meeting and vote on a land-use bill that opponents believe will impose federal standards on local zoning boards." First the meeting was moved to an obscure room from which the public is generally barred; then Sen. James Jeffords, over Republican objections, tried to move the package through the Environment and Public Works Committee, which he chairs, on a voice vote.

The Community Character Act would intrude the federal government deeply into the zoning process, one of local government's most important prerogatives. A federal grant program would pay communities 90% of the cost of updating local zoning regulations in order to "improve environmental policy," "promote social equity" and avert "loss of community character."

If history serves as a guide, the voluntary grant program would soon enough become mandatory. The environment, after all, is too important to be left to the mercies of developers. And indeed, the Community Character Act can be seen as the opening wedge of the old Al Gore "livable communities" initiative that in turn reflects the desires of the "smart growth" movement.

In mid-February the American Planning Association, working on a grant from the Housing and Urban Development department under Clinton-Gore, issued a "Growing Smart" legislature guide, seven years in the making, that purports to offer model codes for communities looking to control development. In the 1920s, the APA points out, a similar document put forward model development codes that led to the zoning systems so common now across the country.

The zoning mechanism at least was confined to decision-making by local government. And, ironically, critics of sprawl frequently complain that zoning has actually served to squeeze out the "community character" that they claim to want. They complain that most American communities are little more than cookie-cutter developments whose main characteristic is the single-family home on a gridlock pattern of streets with no community center at all.

So you would think the smart-growth set might be wary of new formulas being imposed on regions and localities by all those wise and wonderful folks in Washington. Will the planners and their friends in Congress (the Community Character Act requires communities to "consult and cooperate" with nonprofit organizations--such as the APA) really get it right this time? Or might not the market forces and local democracy, if left to themselves, more effectively produce some true character on the American urban and exurban scene?

Developers, after all, already are rushing to supply the environmental amenities that an increasingly affluent nation is demanding. Cluster housing with set-asides for open space is one example. And even as voters in Colorado and Arizona were rejecting grandiose land-use planning measures in the 2000 elections, they were endorsing record sales of bonds for local parks and recreational facilities. And that's as it should be. If people in a certain area want more environmental amenities, they should pay for them.

But of course Al Gore, Jim Jeffords and the like aren't really interested in "community character." They are interested in controlling growth by making it difficult and expensive for average citizens to live the American dream--a house of their own on a plot of land in a decently run community. The only community character they want is a community free of people exercising their own choices about what the good life means.

That's one reason they applauded last week's Supreme Court decision declaring that temporary moratoriums on growth don't necessarily constitute "takings" for which property owners must be compensated. A moratorium is the perfect process tool for no-growthers. It allows them to hamstring development without cost.

And what is the vision that animates the "Growing Smart" guidelines that served as a basis for the Senate bill? The Sierra Club last year conducted an exercise in which it attempted to define the optimum density for American cities. It came up with a figure of 500 families per acre. As economist Randal O'Toole of the Thoreau Institute has pointed out, this is roughly twice the density of the densest parts of Manhattan--on a par with the densest cities of Asia.

Confronted with this observation, the Sierra Club quietly backed off, reducing its density recommendation sharply. Likewise, now that Senate Democrats have been caught trying to foist a federal zoning system on America in secret, it may back off too. The Bush administration has announced opposition to the idea. But the mere existence of a "Community Character Act" tells you that the smart-growthers are making serious inroads--and aren't likely to go away.

Mr. Bray is a staff columnist at the Detroit News. His column appears Tuesdays.

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