Government-funded manual on land use draws fire
By MICHAEL COLLINS
WASHINGTON - Supporters say it's a how-to manual for controlling urban sprawl through planned or "smart growth" development.
Critics say it's a handbook for radically altering land-use plans nationwide, stripping property owners of their rights and devastating small businesses.
A $2.5 million, government-funded guidebook that tells states how they can manage urban sprawl and other land-use problems has ignited a debate among business groups, property-rights advocates, environmentalists and members of Congress.
"It's anti-freedom. It's anti-choice. It's anti-culture,'' said Harry Alford, president and CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce.
Nonsense, countered Robert Manley, a Cincinnati attorney who helped draft the document through the American Planning Association.
"The guidebook contains nothing that is not already on the books, with a (proven) track record,'' Manley told the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on the Constitution. The panel held a hearing about the manual on Thursday.
The subcommittee chairman, Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, said he has serious concerns that the guidebook promotes a "top-down" approach to land-use planning that would remove such matters from the hands of local authorities.
The "Growing Smart Legislative Guidebook,'' a seven-year project sponsored by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, was drafted by the American Planning Association. The document contains recommendations for changing state and local land-use laws.
Opponents contend that property-rights groups and small-business organizations were deliberately excluded from the 18-member committee that developed the manual. Some are asking that Congress refuse to give money to states and local communities to carry out the recommendations.
The guidebook promotes "bad policy" that would make the United States "one big zoning law,'' Alford said.
Among the critics' primary concerns are recommendations that local governments be required to write land-use plans that follow state goals and regional plans - even if residents in those areas don't agree with such plans.
The guidebook also says local governments should be authorized to regulate the location, size, height and other features of commercial signs, including those found on small businesses.
Such signs generally are given greater constitutional protections than large commercial billboards, but business groups fear local communities would be permitted to ban them outright under the guidebook's recommendations.
That could change the character of minority communities such as San Francisco's Chinatown, where signs posted on businesses help give the area the ethnic identity that makes it such a big tourist draw, Alford said.
Manley said the guidebook does not promote a "top-down" approach to planning but merely offers a "menu" of options states can choose from.
Land-use plans need updating because planning tools in most states are based on model statutes drafted during the 1920s, when growth was largely confined to central cities, Manley said.
The rapid development of rural areas means the "one-size-fits-all" approach no longer works, he said. Local communities should be allowed to select the approach that best suits their needs, he said.
(Contact Michael Collins at CollinsM(at)shns.com or online at http://www.shns.com)
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