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All development rights depend on big government

Opponents of smart growth often claim that the regulations and infrastructure investments necessary to support compact, walkable, and transit-oriented development are somehow a big government intrusion upon the free market. That's a false dilemma. The fact is, all development rights depend on big government.

Photo by mseery on Flickr.

A recent white paper from the conservative Heritage Foundation warns that smart growth policies "impede development and economic growth," "undermine individual choice," "discriminate against lower-income Americans," and force people to "give up their cars in favor of subways, trolleys, buses, and bicycles." Egads!

They're not alone. Heavily Democratic Prince George's County can sometimes be as resistant to the big government implications of smart growth as the Tea Party. Last week's post and discussion about Prince George's lawmakers who are "too Arlington" illustrates the point.

Property laws inherently constrain individual liberty

Dramatics aside, the Heritage Foundation isn't all wrong. It's true that smart growth regulations infringe on the market. But that's true of all development regulations—and of property rights themselves. By design, all property regulations constrain individuals' freedom of choice to decide how to acquire and use property.

It's also true that pushing one form of development over another infringes on the market in a different and greater way than simply guaranteeing property ownership. But this too is a necessary evil of all development regulations.

It is a quintessential local government responsibility to effectively use zoning and land use authority to direct development where it needs to go—and, conversely, to prohibit development where it doesn't need to go. The same zoning tools that are used by smart growth advocates to focus dense development around transit are used by suburban developers to build subdivisions of peaceful single-family homes.

Without zoning laws, suburban residential subdivisions would not be protected from intrusion by smelly factories, shadow-casting skyscrapers, and loud night clubs. If the government tried to take away those zoning rules protecting suburban home values, there would be a public revolt.

Similarly, zoning laws and land use controls are necessary to shape development and settlement patterns in a responsible way, both on a local and regional scale. This is particularly true in a county with an expansive land area, like Prince George's County. Without appropriate land use controls, developments could pop up on virtually any greenfield across the vast 500 square mile land area of the county.

But even that type of scattered development depends on big government. You can't build one of those suburban subdivisions—or even one of those fancy new mixed-use "town centers" in the center of nowhere—unless the government blesses, builds, and maintains the roads, schools, sewers, and utilities to serve it.

Even if a private developer fronts money to pay for the infrastructure in and around the development, it's impossible to connect any of it to the larger grid without government help. And after all that new infrastructure supporting scattered development is built, guess who has to maintain it? That's right: big government. And who pays for all of that? That's right: "We the People" do.

Meanwhile, smart growth requires a lot less government infrastructure than sprawl. It also results in huge savings to taxpayers. By making communities walkable and bikeable, and locating them close to mass transit, smart growth reduces commutes, conserves important environmental resources, and facilitates more healthy lifestyles. And yes, as with suburban sprawl, smart growth also requires big government.

Whether the Heritage Foundation and the Tea Party care to admit it or not, it's always been the case that individual property owners can only use property in accordance with the regulations set by the government. The right and responsibility to determine how land is used belongs to the government, for the benefit of the people as a whole, and it always has. That's necessary for modern civilization.

So, since it's big government socialism no matter what, we should dispense with the histrionics and plan for what we want. And if we want smart growth, then we need the government support to do it correctly.

Woodmore Towne Centre: a case study of ineffective TOD

Woodmore Towne Centre. Photo from Petrie-Ross.

Prince George's County's approach to the development of Woodmore Towne Centre in Glenarden illustrates the problem with a laissez-faire approach to TOD.

In 2005, Petrie-Ross Ventures proposed a massive 4 million square foot mixed-use development on a 245-acre vacant woodland just outside the Capital Beltway, at its northeastern intersection with Maryland Route 202. Best Buy, Costco, Wegmans, and other automobile-oriented big box stores were to be the anchors.

The Woodmore site was upzoned from a rural-residential to a mixed-use transportation-oriented zone in 1998, even though it was outside the Beltway and more than a mile away from any existing or planned Metro station.

Meanwhile, multiple nearby sites with better infrastructure connections were left underused. Right across the Beltway from the Woodmore site, the 145-acre Landover Mall site stood shuttered and in need of redevelopment. Additionally, virtually all the nearby Metro stations were undeveloped or significantly underdeveloped.

Woodmore's planned big boxes could have easily been accommodated at the Landover Mall site. Likewise, much of the lower-density residential uses planned for Woodmore could have been placed at the mall site—thus transforming it into a more compact, greener retrofitted mixed-use development inside the Beltway.

Much of the higher density residential, commercial, and office uses planned for Woodmore could have gone to the nearby Metro stations at Largo, Landover, Cheverly, and New Carrollton.

But instead of focusing the county's efforts on developing those Metro stations and redeveloping blighted sites like Landover Mall, Prince George's officials used their zoning power to upzone rural land and make Woodmore Towne Center possible. And in so doing, the county had to build major new roads, Beltway overpass and interchange improvements, and other expensive public infrastructure.

Had Prince George's taken its smart growth policies seriously, it never would have used its big government authority to rezone Woodmore's rural property for intense development. Instead, the county would have used its zoning and land use authority, along with its substantial economic development resources, to aggressively promote, incentivize, and steer that same level of development towards better locations.

In the case of Woodmore Towne Center, the county's lackadaisical approach to smart growth has left it saddled with the still-vacant Landover Mall site, many still-vacant Metro stations, and 245 acres of lost woodlands that will likely never be recovered. And the county has assumed the responsibility for maintaining millions of dollars worth of new and unnecessary roads, sewers, and utilities.

Prince George's leaders are already embracing the big government mentality that's necessary for any urban or suburban development. But if they're truly interested in enhancing the county's livability and landing higher quality jobs and retail, they will need to wake up and start using their big government powers to facilitate smart growth instead of sprawl. As the old familiar Proverb says, "Where there is no vision, the people perish." (Prov. 29:18)

Bradley Heard is an attorney and citizen activist who resides in the Capitol Heights area of Prince George's County. A native of Virginia Beach and former longtime Atlanta resident, Brad hopes to encourage high-quality, walkable and bikeable development in the inner Beltway region of Prince George's County. 


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Are you guys moderating the comments/first-time comments for this one? My popcorn is all ready to go and there's not a SINGLE crazy rant yet!

Do I need to start them by pointing out that it's far more of an intrusion into personal property rights to be told exactly how many parking spots one must/can have or how far their home must be set back from both the street and the rear property line than for the government to say "we're flexible - got a few basic rules, but we can make exceptions - show us what you got..."

by Ms. D on Dec 18, 2012 1:48 pm • linkreport

Well geesh, from reading this you would think the author doesn't actually live in PGC. This is beginning to sound too much like, "everybody did it wrong and now that I'm 5 years in, I'm gonna tell you how wrong it actually was."

I don't get what makes the Landover Mall spot any more "smart growth" than in Woodmore. Neither are w/in walking distance of transit nor are particularly "walkable." Further, how do you plan a Town Center but break it up in parcels? A couple of big box stores here, residential buildings over there..and commercial around the corner, down the beltway, and across the street?

Could the Landover site accomodate bix box, residential and commercial? The Metro Stations? Is it really the lazy approach of city officials that has left Landover Mall languishing?

Yes, areas around metro should be developed. But which one could accommodate the Woodmore Town Centre as planned?

Proverbs? Really? Development decisions in PGC elicits proverbs?

by HogWash on Dec 18, 2012 2:18 pm • linkreport

Shout out to Megan McArdle (and her guest writer Timothy Lee) who wrote a similar article in The Atlantic in March.

Affordable Housing and Social Engineering in New Jersey.

by WRD on Dec 18, 2012 2:25 pm • linkreport

Well geesh, from reading this you would think the author doesn't actually live in PGC. This is beginning to sound too much like, "everybody did it wrong and now that I'm 5 years in, I'm gonna tell you how wrong it actually was."

Would you say that PGC has been particularly innovative in the way it's approached land use and zoning?

Mr. Heard never said that woodmore was smart growth and in fact outlined its several problems. The issue at hand though is that it could have only been built with explicit particpation and decisions by the PG county government. It could have easily been built by a metro or replaced landover mall if the county council decided that it was a priority. It wasn't and now the county is stuck with that much more sprawl in an area with a finite amount of land.

by drumz on Dec 18, 2012 2:36 pm • linkreport

Conservatives, like liberals, are driven by outcomes when it comes to land-use regulation. Neither are concerned with whether or not the process through which their preferred outcomes are accomplished conforms to first principles about rule of law, or limited government.

When it comes down to it, conservatives just have different preferences. They won't be convinced to change those preferences by pointing out that they, too, rely on government intervention.

by Michael Hamilton on Dec 18, 2012 2:38 pm • linkreport

I like to say "government already tells you where NOT to live, so in effect it's already telling you where to live."

Landover is a marginally better site from a land-use perspective since it was already paved over -- unlike Woodmore across the way, developing it would not require new roads, new sewer pipes, or cutting down acres of forests.

by Payton on Dec 18, 2012 3:48 pm • linkreport

There was FAR less regulation prior to the 1930s, and those cities and towns were more dense and walkable. The growth of sprawl has been driven in part by subsidies for everything from cars, gas, highways to telephone and other infrastructure. I say we let the rural and exurbs live according to their professed libertarian principles and pay market rate for their infrastructure. No agricultural, highway, telephone etc subsidies.

by SJE on Dec 18, 2012 3:57 pm • linkreport

Turns out one of the contributing authors to the white paper was Wendell Cox. So you can just throw the paper in the trash: it'll contain nothing other than ideological distortions.

by Marc on Dec 18, 2012 5:22 pm • linkreport

In partial defense of the Heritage White paper, there is an awful lot of regulation, and it impedes business. You can remove regulations and subsidies in a way that promotes smart growth: e.g. stop demanding minimum parking, remove mandatory subsidies, etc.

I would also take Heritage more seriously if it acted as a think tank, rather than a branch of the GOP.

by SJE on Dec 18, 2012 6:29 pm • linkreport

SJE, I think most of us agree that regulations could be relaxed. That's part of what the zoning update is about: relaxing regulations to allow land to be put to its best use, where it is likely to be most efficient/least disruptive (areas where many residents will choose to live without a personal auto can have fewer or no mandated parking spots, very small businesses can open up in certain neighborhoods to provide the services that benefit the residents of that neighborhood conveniently - like many other neighborhoods already enjoy - good design can trump boring boxes, etc.).

It's the authors of and believers in "studies" like these that really like regulation, while claiming they do not. It's a blatant lie to say that parking and lot size minimums, lot coverage maximums, and other outdated, suburban-style regulations "increase freedom" for landowners to do as they please with their property. The only thing having regulations like these WITHIN THE CITY and urbanized suburbs does is artificially buoy housing values further from the city.

by Ms. D on Dec 18, 2012 6:38 pm • linkreport

The title and the sarcastic egads in the second paragraph are big turn offs for me. The problem is not that there isn't enough government or that government is pushing the wrong things - it's that government is trying to engineer everything for everyone.

The market can be a very good thing. Since it's over-regulation that got us into the current unsustainable mess, I don't see that even more government is the right solution. Maybe less government and corrected pricing signals is a better approach.

by Paul on Dec 18, 2012 11:30 pm • linkreport

Thanks for the article. For info on people using voluntary Libertarian tools on similar and other issues worldwide, please see the non-partisan Libertarian International Organization @ ....

by R. Rich on Dec 19, 2012 12:36 am • linkreport

Indeed, even the concept of "property" itself is entirely a product of government action. Without government explicit protection of "property," no such thing exists. It would just be land to be seized and held by force. No one would build or buy because the investment would always be in constant jeopardy of dispossession by force.

by Rich on Dec 19, 2012 5:58 am • linkreport

Good point Rich.

by Thayer-D on Dec 19, 2012 8:49 am • linkreport

Sprawl dependent on big government? I've seen some sprawl proponents of the Heritage/Cato/Reason variety admit as much, but they support it anyway, since the end result is a built environment more in tune with their worldview.

The way they see it, cities inherently cause government dependency, collectivism, socialism, gun control, unionization, etc. and are at odds with the Jeffersonian ideal of the yeoman farmer living on his own land, minding his own affairs, and only interacting with his neighbors when absolutely necessary. Suburban sprawl to them has the advantages of urban life (even though it really doesn't) without the 'negative' aspects of it. They don't see car dependency as a problem. Cars to them represent freedom. The fact that their car is able to move thanks to government roads is not seen as an issue.

They have a self-induced blind spot when it comes to roads, highways, airports, etc. These are whitelisted as "acceptable" public investments. Trains, buses, bike paths, bike lanes, pedestrian facilities, etc. are "boondoggles" and "wastes of money". Go figure. A lot of it is just rationalization of a mid-20th century notion of American life into an ideal.

So some of them may have a moral conundrum (much as they might for government built and operated highways), but not much of one, since from a consequentialist viewpoint the end result (low-density development that allows them to pursue the fanciful notion that they're rugged individualists and self-made "success stories" who don't need government, society, or public investment) outweighs the means to achieve this ("big government").

by HaroldH on Dec 19, 2012 11:56 am • linkreport

HaroldH, exactly.

by Daniel on Dec 20, 2012 9:48 am • linkreport

You are right that local governments, depending on the constitution in their state, may have the right to zone. The federal constitution really only applies to the feds.

But your presumption that "development rights" come from big government is insulting to the idea of freedom in this country. Government doesn't give anybody any rights -- property rights are fundamental in this country. They are [or should be] protected, but they cannot be given by a government any more than free speech can be taken away by government. Government can only try to deny citizen free excercise of rights that come from their humanity.

Believe it or not, your insistence that smart growth is a product of regulation whereas that shopping center is a product of the wily "free market" is incorrect as well. Before the great depression investment in main street came from down the street. The residents built their own city. Not so anymore. The SEC's regulations against investors with under a million dollars getting in to equity investments, GI bill suburban stipulations, and FHA mortgage industry nationalization CREATED suburbs funded by massive money from across the country or the world. The FHA wouldn't insure anything in the city, much less minority areas, and it was their "standards" that created the modern tract home subdivision's form.

The suburbs are a creature of new deal paternalist regulations. You can thank FDR for using the heavy hand of the state to advance his social engineering ideas.

by Cody on Dec 20, 2012 1:33 pm • linkreport

Also, saying that small government people are hypocritical because they use roads is like saying that blacks in the South were hypocritical in the 1850s for wanting freedom but continuing to do as they were told.

Or maybe it's like saying that anybody who drives a car is hypocritical for advocating switching from fossil fuels.

The point being -- just because libertarians use public utility services doesn't mean that they haven't a right to advocate for making them private. What should they do -- refuse to turn on their lights until the utility is privatized? A person has to live in the society he is in before he can work to change it.

Frankly, many victorian developments included private roads. Just because a person currently lives in a society with monopolized roads doesn't mean he hasn't the right to advocate for changing that state of affairs.

by Cody on Dec 20, 2012 1:43 pm • linkreport

Yes, to remain ideologically consistent, they should refrain from using public utilities or continually advocate for their immediate privatization. Advocating that public services they approve of (roads) continue to retain government financial support while arguing that those they don't must survive in the "free market" is just rank hypocrisy.

We've seen where privatization generally higher prices, reduced quality of service, and the socialization of costs for taxpayers/sequestration of profits for shareholders. No thanks. Can anyone name one country on earth with a completely privatized road system? Not Hong Kong or Singapore, that's for sure (both rank higher than the U.S. on the Heritage Foundation's economic liberty scale). Even libertarian heroes Von Mises and Hayek thought there was a place for government-run infrastructure.

by Jason on Dec 20, 2012 3:07 pm • linkreport

I run in the libertarian/conservative circles that include Heritage, at which I once interviewed, so I can offer some perspective. The virtues of the automobile are practically an article of faith. They represent freedom, so they are considered good in and of themselves. Normally, we want to eliminate subsidies and taxes that distort incentives in order to maximize national income, which, in turn, increases personal income. The idea of false prices is strong. However, false prices are ignored in the case of the automobile and arguments border on the irrational if they go fully over to it.

I provoke trouble when I point out inconvenient truths like automobile subsidies, global warming and sending armies every now and then to fight for oil. Would we have bother to fight Saddam's Iraq if it were not for the oil? Would the Iranians be developing nuclear weapons if they didn't have oil? If anything, those regimes could not survive without oil revenues because of their severe economic incompetence. Right now, Iran's mullahs have launched a hyperinflation to bankrupt their middle class and bazari opponents without understand the tremendous blowback it will cause.

My perspective is a bit different because I don't drive. Many can't or don't drive for many reasons. Who would want a blind person or epileptic behind the wheel? So, for many, automobile dependence destroys freedom by removing other means of mobility.

Finally, this is an example of anti-science on the right. Others include denying global warming and evolution. Not that the left is innocent: their scientific sins usually consist of exaggerating threats without scientific support. Scientific American recently had an article about this.

by Chuck Coleman on Dec 25, 2012 12:18 pm • linkreport

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