Sunday, June 29, 2008

NCDOT's excessive affections

Luckily for my kitchen I didn't have food or coffee in my mouth when I read the complaint below from an attorney for the N.C. Outdoor Advertising Association (a.k.a. the billboard lobby), about North Carolina's Department of Transportation.

First, the backstory. The billboard industry wants to be able to legally cut more trees in front of billboards, so that you, the motoring public, can better view those ads. (You might say it's as if your friendly local newspaper wanted permission to kill more housecats if they have the nerve to jump into your lap and obscure your views of the Queen City TV ads. In other words, if a billboard's in a bad place, remove it or charge less for it.) Current state rules say billboard owners can clear trees and shrubs from 250 feet in front of signs. The industry wants to raise that to 375 feet. So far, the bill hasn't passed the N.C. House.

Further, there's a spat between the billboard lobby and NCDOT. Note that word "legally" above. Upon occasion, trees are illegally cut in front of billboards. The NCDOT releases an "illegal cutting inventory," that lists the names of billlboard owners and businesses where the trees were cut. The billboard lobby wants the list to include only the mile markers, no names.

The names on that list, billboard industry lawyer Betty Waller of Cary wrote, may prejudice the public against the billboard owners, by implying they're engaged in criminal conduct.

"Unfortunately, NCDOT has demonstrated an unyielding preference for vegetation, and has been unwilling to adopt a vegetation policy equally accommodating to commerce,” she wrote.

I don't say this often, so pay attention: Hooray for the DOT, for its "unyielding preference for vegetation," in this instance.

Read the full story here. Or turn to page 2B of today's Observer.

And I'll leave you with some verse by the inimitable Ogden Nash:

"I think that I shall never see
a billboard lovely as a tree.
Indeed, unless the billboards fall
I’ll never see a tree at all."

Friday, June 27, 2008

Is Cali-fornication headed our way?

As it happens, Bill Fulton, to whose article I linked yesterday, was in North Carolina last month at a policy wonk gathering in Greensboro, sponsored by the Institute for Emerging Issues at N.C. State, where the topic was dealing with strains on the state's infrastructure due to growth.

In a piece he wrote afterward about North Carolina, "Is More Growth Bad For The 'Good Growth' State?"
Fulton says, "The wonks are gingerly beginning to address the question of whether growth should be managed."

Fulton also spoke at the conference, as an out-of-state expert, saying North Carolina and other parts of the Southeast have the nation's most wasteful and costly patterns of development.

In his article, he writes, "As a Californian, I was struck by how similar the situation in North Carolina today is to what we in California experienced during the postwar boom."

The biggest problem in North Carolina now, he suggests, is the growing divide between urban North Carolina and rural North Carolina.

Fulton is publisher of the California Planning & Development Report, whose web site says it's the only independent publication in the nation covering planning and development issues in a single state.

A different kind of bull - - - - - - for Charlotte

Things learned while looking up other things:

You'd think the state legislatures of North and South Carolina had covered just about every state symbol possible. We have the N.C. state mammal (grey squirrel), the N.C. state reptile (Eastern box turtle), the N.C. state vegetable (sweet potato, although you can insert political joke here about various not-very-energetic elected officials). South Carolina has a comparable list, including the S.C. state snack food (boiled peanuts). Want to know more? Click here.

But we lack a state soil. Turns out a number of other states have adopted state soils. Examples: Illinois — Drummer silty clay loam. Massachusetts -- Paxton soil series. Kentucky -- Crider soil series. Florida -- Myakka fine sand.

North Carolina has a variety of regionally distinct soils. I don't know the scientific names for them, but the flat sandy expanses of Eastern North Carolina are not the same as the thick red clay of the Piedmont. And smack between them lies the Sandhills, which is of course white sandy soil.

But let me propose, if not a state soil, then an official Charlotte soil: Bull tallow.

Ever heard of it? Welcome to my world, or at least, my garden. It’s a thick, yellow-gray clay with, near as I can tell, no plant-supporting properties whatsoever. Red clay soil is heavy, but put some compost and humus in it and it will grow all kinds of wonderful things. Not so bull tallow.

A bit of online research I did seemed to point to bull tallow being a folk name for kaolin, a clay used for pottery and ceramics. Hmmm. But here's why I nominate bull tallow: You really shouldn't build on it, because it expands and contracts dramatically when wet or dry, making the land unstable. So, um, why again have so many houses around Charlotte, and in Union County as well, been built on it? (I've even heard it called the Foxcroft bull tallow.) Guess some developers just wanted to make a little money, and the specter of perpetually cracking home foundations for decades to come wasn't really their concern.

Which, of course, makes it quintessentially “Charlotte.”

Thursday, June 26, 2008

About that two-hour commute ...

OK, I should have left the office by now, but instead I peeked at my ever-welcome automatic e-mail of interesting growth-related stories. This one -- Why the 2-Hour Commute Is A Public Policy Success" -- leaped out as being pertinent to the How Far Will They Drive discussion. It's from a California Planning and Development report, a blogger named Bill Fulton.

You mean, driving costs THIS much?

You knew it would happen, and it is.

"Suddenly, the economics of American suburban life are under assault as skyrocketing energy prices inflate the costs of reaching, heating and cooling homes on the distant edges of metropolitan areas," reports Peter Goodman of the New York Times. See Fuel Prices Shift Math for Life in the Far Suburbs"

I've written about this before, but a lot of people buy houses without really calculating the cost of their transportation to and from work, shopping, schools, etc. So that house in the far reaches of an urban area may cost a lot less, but when you have to drive 30 or 40 miles to work, your living expenses can be more expensive than you had figured. And guess what? Bigger houses also cost more to heat and to air-condition.

Goodman reports: "In Atlanta, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Minneapolis, homes beyond the urban core have been falling in value faster than those within, according to an analysis by Moody’s"

Some planner-pundit types are now hyping the end of the suburbs, based on reports of this sort. Consider this essay in the Washington Post.

I think that's extreme. But it seems obvious that many more people are going to be discovering the allure of living closer to the city -- or even in the city -- because of high fuel prices.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Newspapers and their future

Here's that link I mentioned to a paper presented at a conference last week at the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

To add some facts to the comments: Newspaper circulation has been declining yearly for several decades. What's causing the financial trauma isn't circulation, though of course rising circulation is better than declining. Some of the circulation declines at many papers, such as the Observer, come from their choosing to eliminate delivery by truck and carrier to distant places, including Raleigh. But subscription revenue is a small percentage of newspaper revenue. That's why papers conclude it's more cost-effective not to deliver to far-away places.

The overwhelming bulk of revenue is from advertising. In the past, at most papers around the country up to 30 percent of that revenue, or more, has been from classified ads. That's why the migration of classified ad revenue to online has been such a blow.

Last year, U.S. newspapers averaged a 17 percent profit margin. The Observer remains quite profitable. Last year, nationally, only about 11 percent of newspapers' ad revenue came from online ads. Online readership is growing, and online ad revenue is growing.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

No, I meant tell me something I DON'T know

Here's a remark from a reader who must have an RSS feed or something on The Naked City, because the comment came only minutes after I posted it late last night.

The real news is that the Charlotte Observer and are continuing their slide into total irrelevancy. Hope you didn't come back here expecting your job to be around for a long time. 6/24/2008 12:38:00 AM

Well, now, thanks for reading, but I'm pretty well up to speed on conditions at the Observer. (If it's so irrelevant why read this?) I'm fully aware the Observer isn't perfect. And the layoffs have hurt everyone, even those of us who keep our jobs, because of the emotional trauma and damage to the newsroom's staffing levels.

But is there any other source of news about Charlotte and environs that is substantially better, in terms of breadth, depth and scope?

The financial problems the Observer and other newspapers face are caused essentially by a huge dropoff in classified advertising. Welcome to Craigslist world. If you count daily circulation and online, readership is up for the Observer and many other papers.

I just read an academic paper on the topic of newspapers, that provides some facts that run counter to the prevailing word-of-mouth stuff I've been reading. If I can dig up the link, I'll post it here. Later. Got to unpack and run errands.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Back in the Naked City

Rolled into town at dusk, after two days on the highway from The People's Republic of Cambridge. Was it a good year? One of the best in my life. I'll miss a lot about Cambridge and the Boston area -- but more about that later.

I'll be back at work at week's end, though likely digging through stacks of old mail, and then -- way to make someone feel glad about being back at work after 10 months! -- I get to go to computer classes next week because the Observer has a new pagination-editing system and I'm expected to understand how to use it. Go figure!

So watch this space, but don't get too worried if my postings are catch-as-catch-can.

Until then, what have I missed?

I've been reading, of course, and talking to friends and work colleagues. I know the light rail has been carrying scads of people and the park and ride lots are jammed. I know about those water mains, and that Mayor Pat's running for the Governor's Mansion in Raleigh.

But what's the REAL NEWS? Help me get up to speed, friends.