Community Control

“The effect of local control has turned sinister,” wrote Stephen J. Smith at his excellent site, New York YIMBY, at the end of March. “The push to rezone for growth almost always comes from the mayor and his planning department, while local council members tend to want to scale back plans, or restrict development through downzonings.”

(Since writing the column Smith has gotten a job in real estate. New York YIMBY is still an excellent site.)

Since my job is to cover neighborhood meetings I have a lot of first hand experience of the truth of this. Not a night doesn’t go by of apartment and condo buildings getting talked down in number of units and height and talked up in terms of parking spaces and setbacks. And then these same people, who live in a neighborhood of 20 foot setbacks, complain that there’s no open space. Sometimes getting charged with assault just seems like it would be worth it.

There are a lot of reasons for this. In Boston, the zoning code was written to make people go through a community process, Ed Glaeser has written about cognitive biases, some research suggests that property-owners are just zealous in the protection of their investments. Personally, I find that there’s a selection effect going on: the kind of person who is both interested in civic issues and has the free time to go to meetings is a white, middle-aged, middle class property owner. They therefore compose the membership of the neighborhood board and schedule the meetings when they can come, which means that apart from the people who are paid to be there, the people who are interested in coming and can come are similar to the board members: white, middle-aged, middle class and property-owning. It’s also far more likely that opponents of something will attend a meeting about it than supporters. People of color, poor people, renters and pro-development residents do not come to community meetings. Whether they don’t come because of disinterest, ability or any other reason is not relevant, the point is that a small, comfortable minority is in control.

Fortunately Allston is a bit more pro-development than West Roxbury. God help me if I lived in South Boston.

Anyways, Smith argues that land use planning should be the province of city, state or the federal government and be out of the hands of local groups. “Higher level planning seems to yield more development,” he wrote. “Land use governance should be shifted from the local level . . .”

While he brings up a few examples, including Tokyo, where higher levels have worked better, I think it’s still an interesting tack for a Market Urbanist to take.

Washington and Oregon nonwithstanding, I cannot imagine that state or federal planning will produce anything good, especially because, as I’ve learned from the Roosevelt Institute, a lot of land use governance in Massachusetts is done at the state level and it mandates suburban sprawl.

“The Commonwealth’s zoning laws tacitly endorse development that causes health problems for Bay Staters, decay within urban areas and the wasteful mismanagement of Massachusetts’ natural resources and cities,” wrote Jeffery Trapani back in 2003.

One only has to look at the news from New York, where Governor Andrew Cuomo recently supported a tax cut for yacht owners but not a dime for the MTA, or Washington, DC where Republican members of Congress believe that snow in the winter disproves global climate change to get an idea of what state and federal control of land use would look like. Community control is bad, but putting the people who gave us the Port Authority of New York-New Jersey or ask if Guam is in danger of capsizing in charge would be even worse.

On the contrary, I think that the best way to reform zoning and community control would be to abolish it completely. Cities should be able to prescribe building codes for safety, but everything else would be left to the property owner. Size, setback, parking, appearance. Neighbors should not have more right to interfere with a person’s property than the owner. If the neighbors have a problem, they can put their money where their mouths are and attempt to buy the property, rather than use the state’s coercive apparatus.

Such an action may actually stimulate the development of communitity sodalities, like in Medieval cities. Such associations, with the responsibility of property ownership, might even be more amenable to development than the NIMBY groups. I know it would be politically inadvisable, but I can dream.

One thought on “Community Control

  1. I think the important thing is not the level at which the control is located, but the checks and balances that come from the interactions between levels. In the Japanese zoning system, it’s the balance between the national-level policy that decides what the zoning options are, and the local policy of how and where to apply those options. The problem with local control of zoning is basically the same as the problem of “rotten boroughs” like Vernon, CA: the incumbent voters can basically vote to exclude others from voting (by excluding them from living in the jurisdiction), thus giving them rather more power for things like rent-seeking. The national level of control provides a check on that, and keeps zoning much less exclusionary. This sort of happens at the national level too, with immigration debates which, while rather relevant for Japan, are a separate discussion.

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