Monday, December 01, 2008

But is it "progress"?

I was intending to launch a new topic this morning – first of the month and all that – but instead I'm pointing your attention to the comments on the previous posting, about Locust.

It's a good by-play on the pros and cons of town planning. Bob Remsburg, a former Locust city administrator, has weighed in, as well as former Locust council member Joe Bishop, as well as David Walters – whom the original post quoted. Also, Rick Becker, the mayor of Mineral Springs (in southern Union County) and Rodger Lentz, the planner who helped launch the "town center" in Harrisburg (in Cabarrus County, on the Mecklenburg line). It's a good summation of how town planning evolves. As Lentz (now planning director for Wilson in Eastern North Carolina and president of the N.C. chapter of the American Planning Association) points out, the original vision can be compromised due to developers' wishes or beliefs about the marketplace. As Becker points out, towns' plans rely on utilities and if needed utilities aren't present even the best plans can languish for years.

And as one of the "anonymi" points out, today's beliefs about "good" planning might in the end be proven all wrong:

The "awful alternatives" that we see in many places ARE the result of planning. In Charlotte the most obvious and glaring example of that was the utter destruction of close-in residential neighborhoods such as Brooklyn, to be replaced by "planned communities" such as the now-defunct Earle Village. That nonsense was urban planning just as much as the "new urbanism" version. I know some folks are fond of claiming that planning has evolved, but things don't evolve TOWARD something, and evolution does not presuppose an improvement. It is only a change in response to changing conditions. Since future needs, wants, and tastes can't possibly be predicted, planning done today can't possibly accommodate the needs, wants, and tastes of tomorrow. There's no real reason to believe that a generation from now the planners and "visionaries" who hold sway to day won't be vilified for what they've wrought.

It's a caution for all who care about planning and city- and town-building: We may think we're on the side of progress but sometimes it turns out "progress" isn't.

(And thanks to all of you for reading and taking the time to comment.)

16 comments:

Rick said...

One example of this could be the current fixation on mass transit, TOD, and cramming people into wedges and corridors in today's (or should I say yesterday's?) high-gas-priced world.

When plug-in hybrids start to roll off the assembly lines of foreign car manufacturers in large numbers within a few years and the unions have possibly driven the Big Three into bankruptcy, who knows how this perpetually cheep transportation will affect the desire to limit sprawl.

Rick Becker said...

I would disagree a bit with both the first "Rick" and the "Anonymous" quoted by Mary.

The glaring failure exemplified by the destruction of the Brooklyn neighborhood isn't so much a failure of planning as it is of politics: politicians sought to buldoze thousands of acres of once-vibrant inner-city as some sort of "new deal" for the inner city residents. Worst of all is that, in most cases, the funding (much of it federal) ran out shortly after the buldozers left but before anything new got built. I think it would be fair to say that the biggest problem was an absence of planning.

As for the first "Rick", I would say that the move by planners toward creating urban and other mixed-use, walkable environments is not solely in response to fuel prices and is definitely not breaking new ground. Since the beginnings of recorded history, cities developed from the center outward; there evolved a commercial core, with dense living arrangements, surrounded by decreasing densities as the fringes served as the agricultural providers of the city's food supply. This has been true of the ancient orient, ancient Rome and Greece, medieval Europe, colonial America...you name it, the dense core/agricultural hinterlands has been the successful planning model throughout history. In fact, people actually like this tried-and-true model; the current fixation with far-flung "storage facilities for people" is due as much to the absence of choices as it is to any overwhelming desirability of the model.

Of course, to agree with "anonymous" to a point: the abject failures of the current suburban craze: single-use zoning, cul-de-sac residential design, lack of sidewalks, lack of connectivity - were, to some extend, the gift of "planners"...a gift that I wish we could return. But I won't put all the blame on planners; back to my comments on the last blog posting, much of this development pattern was designed and pushed by developers because it magically maximized profit due to minimizing development cost.

Planning, as I see it, is not necessarily a villain, is not a "one-size-fits-all" model, and is not always in opposition to the wishes of present and future residents. In Mineral Springs, for example, we are far from operating with a "...fixation on mass transit, TOD, and cramming people into wedges and corridors". We are still approving conventional subdivisions, but with a bit more attention to creating welcoming streetscapes, preserving open space in a more discerning fashion, and with - believe it or not - an overall reduction in density further from the crossroads that defines the "downtown".

The downtown business district is based on a mixed-use concept, with residential structures at densities of up to 5 units/acre, a few "brownstones" along otherwise urban/commercial streets, a well-defined street grid, and storefronts along sidewalks to encourage pedestrian activity. Although parking lots are an ugly feature, they are still included because our planners recognize that people will drive cars from outside the immediate core and will need a place to leave these cars. On-street parking is favored, but the lots are there too...hopefully, fewer than one sees in the hideous strip shoping centers that dominate everybody's current retail choices.

Finally, these plans were only arrived at after extensive public input; this was not a case of "forcing" something down people's throats. There is way too much demonization of planning on this blog, with the usual contention being that planners are operating from some sort of socialist manifesto, intent on creating bad living environments simply to be ornery. This is absolutely not true of good planning. The people who will eventually live in high-density downtown Mineral Springs will live there because they chose to live there, not because somebody forced them to do so.

Rodger Lentz said...

ok, I can't resist.

Much of the bad that we have has to do with the roads we have designed and required in North Carolina. Much of this has to do with NCDOT policy and traffic engineers doing what they are trained to do, move cars. It also has to do with federal funding policies for state DOTs. When we started designing everything around moving the car, we lost the ability to create the spaces that people come to love, so now we go on vacation to those places that didn't or were built before we became car centric.

In Charlotte, when planners were inserted into CDOT and given more influential positions, the tide began to turn. Charlotte began thinking about all travelers. Imagine what Charlotte would look like if it had been following the urban street design guidelines for the past 30+ years. Charlotte would be a much different place. And less people would be getting killed on their bicycles or simply trying to walk a few blocks.

Why did so many cities stop building sidewalks? Ever go to a city and wonder why the historic district or first tier suburbs have them and then, poof, they are gone. Even my new home, the city of Wilson, stopped in the 50's. Post WW-II suburbanism and the emphasis on the car and building as many houses as possible as fast as possible for the baby boomer families. The development community stopped it along with engineering policies. The roads needed to be wider to accommodate the road the traffic engineers thought we needed and there was no room left for the sidewalks. No room left for the landscaped median or other public spaces. God forbid if a planner proposed a public square in the street like in Savannah for example. That would get in the way of moving cars!

Funny how the sidewalk debate comes back in Charlotte. And who is leading the charge?

Now planners do hold responsibility for some dumb things over the years. Of course, many professions have dumb things they can take responsibility for. I've listed traffic engineers, what about some bad architecture that has created some dead spaces in uptown. Professions grow and learn, hopefully not repeating the mistakes of the past.

Some of America's greatest cities and neighborhoods resulted from good plans that were followed. They gave us memorable places that are sought after in both the real estate and tourist markets. The American Planning Association has begun to recognize and celebrate these places with its Great Streets, Great Neighborhoods recognition program (www.planning.org/greatplaces). Check some of the places out and see if they are not places you recognize or have even visited.

Karl Chance said...

The whole question on planning is really a political question of how much control government should have over what citizens do on their private property. This is why some posters have decried socialism. It is also why some posters have claimed that the citizens wanted the plan; because government implemented it and government represents the citizens.

Government planners create city plans based on whatever the planners value.

Property owners build what suits their needs unless some government disallows it.

The government planners wish to control what the property owners do with their property. But yet the property owners are the ones that the government officials are supposed to be representing.

Where the line is drawn for the level of control is the root issue.
This is not a question of whether any particular plan has value or not.

Rodger Lentz said...

Karl,

I disagree that planners make plans simply for what they value. Any plan created is done through a very public process, typically includes an oversight committee for the planning project (appointed by the elected board), is reviewed by a council appointed planning board, and then adopted by the elected governing board. Planners facilitate a process and provide alternative solutions for consideration by those involved.

I completely agree that the elected board is supposed to be representing the citizens, which includes property owners, and their wishes (our whole American political system is based on the principals of a republic and the representative form of government). Many times these wishes are in competition though. One property owner wants to develop her land, another wants a low tax rate and less traffic. The property owner's development will create enough traffic to overload a road which will require road improvements. It takes tax dollars to make the improvements in order to maintain acceptable levels of traffic congestion. You get the picture. In a perfect world development would pay for itself. In other words any impact created by the development would be mitigated by the developer. In North Carolina, state law does not allow local governments to do that. Local government cannot charge impact fees for parks, schools, roads, police, fire, etc. So a good plan allows land uses and intensity/density of development that can be supported given the ability of a local government to provide necessary services within its budgetary realities.

Brent Edwards said...

Karl Chance eloquently demonstrates the kind of common sense that is so often missing from this blog in particular and the Observer's editorial board more generally.

The cry of "socialism", as misplaced as it may technically be, gets raised in debates like this because it seems that the planners and their cheerleaders like Ms. Newsome never have anything to say about the wants, needs, and most importantly the rights of the people who actually own the properties under discussion.

As a landowner in eastern Union County who is facing the all-too-possible loss of his home and business to a "planned" commercial development, I tend to pay the most attention to people who understand that property owners still have some rights in 21st century America. I tend to dismiss people who never even think to mention that people actually own the land that sits under their grandiose "plans".

Rick said...

Sorry to be ornery Mr Becker, but here we go again with the "choices" argument. It's always all about "choices".

The straw man with this argument is that new urbanism and the focus on increased urban living provide "choices" to a wide ranging group of people. Do they? The best examples of new urbanist planning we have in Charlotte are designed primarily for the rich and well-heeled. The Uptown condo projects (the ones that haven't been delayed or canceled) are certainly less diverse than most suburban neighborhoods. Diversity is more than just race. It includes economic level, education, and employment. I doubt there are too many poor, highschool drop-outs, who work minimum wage that have moved into the Avenue, Trademark, or Courtside

Look at the current revaluation debate. Many are against doing it now because the gentrification of the inner ring neighborhoods will drive out more lower income residents when their taxes go up.

Mass transit is no different.

The people who are totally dependent on mass transit have no additional "choices" when their old bus route is discontinued or changed to support rail. They just have to do what CATS tells them to do. The main use of "choice" in transit is when the transit gurus want to go after the "choice" riders - those who already have the "choice" of driving their own car. More money per rider is spent to get them to choose transit at the expense of the poor who actually have no "choice". (I'm one of those "choice" riders by the way. I really enjoy the plush seating that CATS has to provide on the express buses. I do ride the locals as well, but man those express buses sure are nice.) Is it right to spend millions of dollars to get a few people who are too good for buses to ride the train? That's another "choice" we've made.

Mineral Springs may be different, but then Mineral Springs is different by the very nature that it is a small town - not a growing city. No offense meant by that at all, Mr Becker. I love small towns. I spent a lot of time in them growing up. However, Mineral Springs is different from Charlotte in just about every way. Good schools. Low crime. Less economic and racial diversity. Low population. You don't have to "force" people into wedges and corridors when you're dealing with a one road town. Not better, not worse. Just different.

I'm sure James Kunstler would be proud of a town like Mineral Springs. When the world comes to an end, can we all move there? You'll need some more houses less than $200k though.

A search of Mineral Springs at www.carolinahome.com shows only 1 available.

Not much of a choice.

Rick Becker said...

Rodger, thank you for emphasizing what "planning" actually entails, how the process should work, and how it is a benefit to the community (including landowners).

One correction: in North Carlolina, local governments do have the authority to charge an impact fee, of sorts, for parks. Mary has written about this before. The problem is, most local governments have not written it into their land use ordinances. Char-Meck is a glaring example, having given up millions of dollars worth of public benefit by not pursuing park dedications or fees. Developers have continued to lobby local officials not to require these dedications, and local officials - good friends to developers that they usually are - have continued to do the developers' bidding.

Brent, most planners and elected officials that I know, and Mary too, do consider - always - "the wants, needs, and most importantly the rights of the people who actually own the properties under discussion." It's funny, though...in your post you imply that you wouldn't like your property to become part of that monster 6,000-acre industrial park that the Union County Partnership for Progress is currently talking about. If it did, you would likely be able to sell your property for an enormous amount of money.

Most large landowners that I know in Union County want to sell out and cash in, and they see any restriction on the amount and type of development that is allowed on their property as "socialism" or "theft of their property rights". You, on the other hand, appear to like your home or pasture or woods or whatever just the way they are, and would like to continue to live there unmolested.

Now, here's an example: let's say that the Mineral Springs town council is hearing a rezoning request for a 100-acre tract where the owner wants to change the zoning from one house per two acres to five houses per acre. Many people speak at the public hearing; the large landowner presents all sorts of pictures and maps (presumably prepared by planners) to support his rezoning request; several dozen residents of modest homes on one to five acre lots in the immediate vicinity of the large tract speak against the rezoning, expressing concern that their quality of life will suffer, their environment will be damaged, and their lifelong home will be ruined.

Those little guys are "landowners" too, right? But in most blogs like this one, the champions of the large landowners and developers - the "planner-haterz" - derisively refer to them as "NIMBY's" and, were the town council to deny the rezoning, would refer to the town council as "socialist" for depriving the large landowner of his property rights.

So, elected officials - and planners - have to consider all landowners when making their plans and decisions. Too often, "landowner" in this context has come to mean "developer", or "owner of more than 100 acres", or someting like that; the individual homeowners are the ones who are forgotten because somehow owning "only" an acre makes somebody somehow "inferior" in a planning context.

I don't know how much land you own east of Marshville, but it sounds as if you'd maybe not like to give up your home for a bunch of factories. Planners and elected officials need to look out for you as well as the owner of the 1,000 acres down the street who may be politically connected and who wants to sell out for those factories.

That's the balancing act that Karl touched on, and which Rodger explained even more eloquently.

Rick Becker said...

Rick, I don't disagree totally with you about Charlotte, but I must correct several misstatements you've made about Mineral Springs.

First, the town is both racially and economically diverse; quite so, in fact. Please check the census profiles for our town.

Second, there are plenty of homes in Mineral Springs worth less than $200,000. Union County just did a property revaluation in 2008, and my small house is appraised at $182,000. In fact, I would estimate that out of the approximately 977 housing units in Mineral Springs, at least 500 of them are worth less than $200,000. Probably 200 are worth less than $100,000. There are a few at over $1 million, too.

That's diversity. That's choice. If the lower-priced homes aren't currently on the market, that might just be because people like where they're living so much that they're not selling. :-)

Having said that, and as much as I believe that good planning is essential for a small town like Mineral Springs, I would contend that it is even more essential for a city the size of Charlotte. And that planning can and should include transit options.

I will completely agree with you that the uptown and close-in "choices" in Charlotte are, ummmm, limited when it comes to affordability and choice. I find it disturbing that the "affordable" choice for uptown housing consists of 600-square-foot condos at over $200,000...$333/square foot.

But why is that? Where are the three-story walkups that many cities have that are affordable for hourly workers and service employees? They're rubble at the base of an area landfill, that's where they are. I'm sure that many planners would love to have those "affordable" housing choices back, but the buldozers needed targets, and the uptown developer crowd needed more cash. It's unfair to blame planners for the selfish decisions of greedy developers and their pocket politicians. But if somebody - often a planner - suggests that local government should mandate a certain amount of housing in those locations that is affordable to "working class" participants, those sugestions are shot down as being "socialist" or "interference in the free market".

Back to your original argument that we are on the verge of "perpetually cheap transportation" in the form of plug-in hybrids: forgive me if I knock down that straw man.

The cost of commuting transportation for the residents of far-flung suburbs and exurbs is but a fraction of the cost of developing and supporting those "choices" and is just about the only cost that is borne by the residents themselves.

The rest of the costs are born by the society. The cost of building roads to these suburban paradises. The cost of providing widely dispersed water and sewer resources. The cost of providing law enorcement and fire protection spread far and wide. The cost to build new schools to serve ever larger areas, and perpetual cost to transport children from increasingly dispersed housing to these schools. The destruction of food-producing land and the cost of ever-longer transportation of our food products and ever-decreasing quality of those food products. The cost of these problems to public health.

In Union County, the poster child for this the worst sort of exurban sprawl, I'm paying through the nose in property taxes to support this stuff and I resent it. On the other hand, when I shop in Mecklenburg county, I'm paying 1/2 cent of every dollar spent - maybe $25 a year - to support a passenger rail system (in a county in which I don't even live) and I'm glad to do so.

I'd love to see some of the close-in lower-cost housing still standing. Maybe I'd even consider living there. Too bad it's all been razed to make way for "progress".

Rick said...

Mr. Becker, I'll be glad to do this back and forth for as long as you’d like...it's entertaining. Also, I’m glad to hear that I was wrong about the housing stock. Maybe you truly have created a utopia where nobody wants to move. That would be awesome!

Here's the 2000 census data for Mineral Springs (which I checked prior to making the diversity statement.) This is from Wikipedia, but the census website has the same info. I know the town has grown - almost doubled since the last census, so if these are way, way off, please post the accurate figures and I'll gladly stand corrected.

"As of the census[1] of 2000, there were 1,370 people, 475 households, and 387 families residing in the town. The population density was 181.2 people per square mile (70.0/km²). There were 491 housing units at an average density of 64.9/sq mi (25.1/km²). The racial makeup of the town was 79.93% White, 17.88% African American, 0.15% Native American, 0.22% Asian, 0.88% from other races, and 0.95% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 1.90% of the population."

(FYI – I tried to double check the numbers based on the percentages of tests taken for 2006-2007 school achievement at Western Union Elementary which I believe is the Mineral Springs elementary school. Interestingly, the website only shows the students who passed both sections of the test. I know that doesn’t give a direct comparison, but the numbers were surprisingly close to the census numbers. They come out to 78.8% White, 15.4 % African American, 3.0% Hispanic. Again, if it’s changed drastically, and this is just a coincidence, please let me know.)

The main point here is that when one group has an overwhelming majority as Mineral Springs does, then race based politicking is less of an impact on the community. Certainly, there is some level of diversity in rural areas, but the level of diversity does matter when it comes to political decision making. I’ll point to the Nick Mackey Affair, the constant racial bickering on the CMS school board, and the fact that the Black Political Caucus wields significant political influence here in Charlotte as examples of this. These influences have an impact on planning as well. As you pointed out, see the constant debates about public/affordable housing we have here in Charlotte.

As for lamenting the housing stock in Charlotte that has been torn down, I’ll just say this…

Wishing the past hadn’t happened, or that the future won’t happen are respectively irrelevant and naive when it comes to current planning decisions. Certainly, we can learn from the past and hope to not repeat its mistakes. That’s the whole point of this thread. However, we can’t change the past, and wishing it hadn’t happened is wasted energy.

When it comes to pretending the future won’t happen, my initial comment about the plug-in hybrids was just an example of that to illustrate the law of unintended consequences. Certainly, I wouldn’t argue the externalized costs of suburbia. There are a bunch of them. However, add in the variables of telecommuting and cheap transportation and you suddenly take away some of the major impediments to living in the suburbs/exurbs – like Mineral Springs. To prevent that from happening, you get back to forcing people to live in corridors and wedges. (Which is what your vision of planning isn’t doing – right?)

As a side note, I’m sorry to hear that you’re complaining about your taxes. At only 71 cents/$100 plus the Mineral Springs tax, it’s a bargain. Imagine how we feel in Charlotte paying $1.30/$100 plus the transit tax.

My main gripe with government in general is not property rights, or wasted taxes, or its being socialist - though all of those do truly annoy me. It’s the childish treatment of the citizenry. I’ll even give you that one role of government is to provide a framework for growth and implement things such as zoning policies. I just want government to be honest about it.

If the true reason for corridors and wedges, or current new urbanism planning in general, is to reduce the costs of government services because suburbia is untenable and too expensive as you seem to be saying, then just tell people that. Just say to the people “look, it is way too expensive for all of you suburbanites to live way out there, so here’s what we’re going to do as a society. No more neighborhoods out there, unless you are going to pay the full and total cost of it - schools, roads, and everything. We’ve picked some developers who are going to be the winners in this game, and they are building some really nice mixed use living spaces for you close to town if you can’t afford that. Trust us. You’ll like it. We know better.”

Then, let’s see how the next rounds of elections go.

Again, sorry for the orneriness…

Rick Becker said...

OK, Rick, I misunderstood your original comment about "diversity"...you said Mineral Springs had "less economic and racial diversity" than Charlotte, and that's certainly true. Why I took slight offense - perhaps erroneously - was due to your implication that Mineral Springs was another of the so-called "elitist" enclaves for rich white Charlotte commuters that Union County is known for; your sarcastic closing paragraphs:

"I'm sure James Kunstler would be proud of a town like Mineral Springs. When the world comes to an end, can we all move there? You'll need some more houses less than $200k though.

"A search of Mineral Springs at www.carolinahome.com shows only 1 available.

"Not much of a choice."

serve to reinforce that possible misperception on my part. If that wasn't your implication, I'm sorry.

You're right: we don't have the racial tensions of Charlotte. We have two African-American members of our seven-member governing board, which consists of all at-large seats. While I'd contend that lack of racial tensions is a good thing, I can't give any credit to our government for that; that credit goes to our people.

As for economic diversity, I think that our government has made modest efforts toward that end. While we zone for very low density in much of our town - as low as one dwelling unit per two acres, a density that some detractors say forces up the cost of housing - we have avoided some of the "exclusionary" provisions favored by some jurisdictions. For example, manufactured houses are permitted in all residential zoning districts, and a significant percentage of our new zoning permits are still for manufactured homes. We do not permit gated subdivisions (OK, you might argue that that is a "choice" we've eliminated, but that's a "choice" our residents and governing board can live without). We have very accomodating provisions on the re-use, replacement, and repair of non-conforming residential structures.

To relate to the original topic, these measures are a product of our planning process, and I believe that they are providing broad housing choices for our residents.

We do have an extremely wide range of housing prices available, and no - in spite of your sarcastic claim that we must have created a utopia - most of the housing in Mineral Springs has been here for at least 20 years, so our government cannot take credit for creating that "utopia".

I don't know why you launched into this particular diatribe:

"Wishing the past hadn’t happened, or that the future won’t happen are respectively irrelevant and naive when it comes to current planning decisions. Certainly, we can learn from the past and hope to not repeat its mistakes. That’s the whole point of this thread. However, we can’t change the past, and wishing it hadn’t happened is wasted energy."

There's nothing wrong with wishing those choices were still available, as long as the effort isn't confined to wishing alone. In fact, I brought up the issue of the destruction of affordable or potentially affordable housing choices in direct response to your perfectly valid complaint about the excessive cost of all close-in housing in Charlotte. I think focusing on that affordability issue in the context of the bad decisions that caused it in the first place is a valid part of addressing the problem.

As for taxes: right. If you live in the City of Charlotte, of course you're paying $1.30. If you live in the City of Monroe, in Union County, you're paying approximately $1.20 - pretty close.

My objection to Union County taxes is to the rate of increase - and the reasons for those increases. The taxes are increasing in Union County for two major reasons: first, abject lack of planning; and second, nearly two decades of county governing boards that were so beholden to developers that developers have been effectively subsidized by the taxpayers while being permitted to build in a fashion that was both unsustainable and crushingly expensive in public service needs (particularly schools). So even though the dollar amount is lower, the reasons - deliberate ignorance and corruption - make the tax pill a much more bitter one to swallow.

Meanwhile, the Mineral Springs portion of the tax bill is 2.5¢. This rate is as low as it is simply because the town's governing board, in response to the desires of the residents, does not spend money on extensive services. No trash pickup: contract for your own, or take your trash to one of the county drop-off points. No police department: the county sheriff's deputies provide great patrol service countywide. No fire department: the volunteer fire department that serves the Mineral Springs area provides extraordinary service to its entire district.

We're getting off the topic of planning, though...this is fiscal policy...

Finally, your final series of comments:

"...My main gripe with government in general is not property rights, or wasted taxes, or its being socialist - though all of those do truly annoy me. It’s the childish treatment of the citizenry. I’ll even give you that one role of government is to provide a framework for growth and implement things such as zoning policies. I just want government to be honest about it.

"If the true reason for corridors and wedges, or current new urbanism planning in general, is to reduce the costs of government services because suburbia is untenable and too expensive as you seem to be saying, then just tell people that. Just say to the people “look, it is way too expensive for all of you suburbanites to live way out there, so here’s what we’re going to do as a society. No more neighborhoods out there, unless you are going to pay the full and total cost of it - schools, roads, and everything."

Speaking for myself, I am honest about that. That's one of the things I'm known for, especially in my criticism of the county or of certain municipalities in the county that are bleeding the taxpayers dry by permittng and even encouraging such poorly-planned development.

I have watched the county extend water and sewer lines 5, 10 miles out into the countryside to a 500-acre cornfield or forest in the middle of nowhere (which just happens to be owned by one or more of their cronies) and then watched as the natural features were buldozed flat and 500, 1,000, 1,500 commuter houses - or more - sprung up there. No plan, except the plan to massively enrich some cronies. No sustainability: the residents of these new storage facilities for people drive everywhere; they're in the middle of nowhere, remember, located there simply because some connected land speculator picked up a big piece of land "on the cheap" and had the necessary government officials in his pocket.

Mary herself, although not a part of government, is also honest about those sustainability reasons, and is frequently bashed in her own blog for that honesty.

The other reason for Mineral Springs' plan - again, totally honestly presented - is that the residents have stated, loud and clear, that they want lower-density housing on our outer fringes, that they want a Main-Street-based downtown business district, that they do not want a series of strip shopping centers downtown, that they want agricultural activities to remain permitted uses, that they want our environment, particularly creeks and woodlands, to be protected, that they want continued industry at the outer edges of the town along the major highway (NC Hwy 75).

These are key elements of our plan...there because people want them.

And our governing board is honest about these reasons.

Is there anything wrong with that?

Rick said...

No, there’s actually nothing wrong with that at all if it’s done honestly - nothing wrong at all. Actually Mr Becker, my utopia comment wasn't sarcastic. You've apparently done it, and James Kunstler would be proud.

No racial tension. That's because you have great people.

No need for additional police. That's because you have great people.

Low taxes because residents take some personal responsibility for themselves. That's because you have great people.

You can be honest with your constituents. (Bravo, by the way!) That's because you have great people who can handle the truth.

See the pattern?

Also, all of these successes are at least partly due to the fact that you have a small enough number of people who are probably more interested in their civic duties than most of us Big City folk. Mineral Springs is not much bigger than my neighborhood, and we also have a similar degree of economic diversity. When we have an issue, there is a high degree of often heated community involvement. As Mayor, I bet you know just about everybody by name – right? When I attend public meetings in Charlotte, there is hardly ever anyone there. I’ve recently been to both a CATS meeting in University and a planning meeting held at the public library Uptown. At both, myself and 2 other people were the only members of the public who attended. There were 6-8 city officials there however.

Here’s a real example of how the “dishonesty” I mentioned works in the Big City. CATS puts out a survey at its presentations which allows users 100 points to allocate towards various transit initiatives. The only one that is worth the full 100 points is to move forward with the rapid transit plan faster than the current schedule. There’s no mention in the survey that picking this one will require a tax increase. Obviously, if one person picks that one, it will outweigh several other people picking more reasonable choices. One of the 3 people at that meeting I attended was an executive of University City Partners. Which one do you think that person picked? How much do you want to bet that CATS uses these survey “results” in an appeal to increase taxes for transit - saying they got a lot of public input and support to boot?

When I asked CATS if they were planning to go after more tax money, the answer given was again “dishonest”. CATS said that they can’t lobby for more tax money because they are a government agency, and that would be illegal. However, the presenter did say other bodies were organizing to do just that. Then the UCity Partners person at the meeting answered the question. Shocker, there are groups organizing to raise more public money for transit - just not formally, yet. Because once it’s formal then you have to start dealing with nasty little things like election laws and such. CATS doesn’t lobby directly, they just get their minions to do it.

It’s similar to the fact that elected officials, the publisher of the local daily (Mary’s boss), the city manager, and several developers who will benefit from transit all sit on the board of Charlotte Center City Partners. That’s the main lobbying body for all things Uptown. CCCP campaigned like religious zealots during last year’s transit tax debate even though the organization is funded by tax money. No, there’s certainly no conflict of interest there – right?

These are the “honest” people doing the planning here in Charlotte.

As for being attacked if you relish the past here in Charlotte, that knife cuts both ways on this blog. If you say you liked it better when there was less traffic, less crime, and slower growth, then you are labeled a luddite or a redneck, told to leave the county, or called a racist. All I can say to that is you’d better have thick skin if you’re going to jump in the briar patch.

Rodger Lentz said...

Interesting Comment Rick Becker:

"My objection to Union County taxes is to the rate of increase - and the reasons for those increases. The taxes are increasing in Union County for two major reasons: first, abject lack of planning; and second, nearly two decades of county governing boards that were so beholden to developers that developers have been effectively subsidized by the taxpayers while being permitted to build in a fashion that was both unsustainable and crushingly expensive in public service needs (particularly schools). So even though the dollar amount is lower, the reasons - deliberate ignorance and corruption - make the tax pill a much more bitter one to swallow.

Meanwhile, the Mineral Springs portion of the tax bill is 2.5¢. This rate is as low as it is simply because the town's governing board, in response to the desires of the residents, does not spend money on extensive services. No trash pickup: contract for your own, or take your trash to one of the county drop-off points. No police department: the county sheriff's deputies provide great patrol service countywide. No fire department: the volunteer fire department that serves the Mineral Springs area provides extraordinary service to its entire district.

We're getting off the topic of planning, though...this is fiscal policy..."

I will disagree that you are getting off the topic of planning. An areas comprehensive plan, Capital Improvements Program, and annual budget should all be tied together. We should ask the question, how does this expenditure support or not support the policies of the comprehensive plan. A comprehensive plan doesn't just look at where subdivisions and shopping centers should go. It looks at housing affordability, environmental issues, transportation, parks and open space, public facilities, utilities, etc. It should also look at what levels of service citizens want and then program those desires into the CIP and Annual Budget to keep pace with growth. What you are experiencing in Union County is the fact that many types of new development, especially many residential developments, do not cover their costs to provide services.

A comprehensive plan should include a fiscal impact analysis. What will various growth and development scenarios cost to serve and maintain current levels of service and what impact does that have on the local budget. Does the community want to improve the types and amounts of services provided (i.e. accelerate park development, get into providing transit, etc.). What is the budgetary impact of certain types of development (multi-family, single family, affordable housing, retail, office, industrial, etc.). The point is not to exclude land uses, but to attempt to attract a balance of development that is fiscally sustainable (hopefully get a good industrial base to offset the costs to serve residential development).

To complicate this you throw in various levels of government and the services that they provide. County versus City is difficult enough without throwing in other layers of government. Lets talk about Union County and Mineral Springs. a 2.5 cent tax rate means that Mineral Springs is providing little in the way of traditional municipal services. In Mineral Springs, it would have little impact on them to simply be a bedroom community and the mix of housing types will have little impact on their budget. Union County has several services to fund, including one of the most expensive public facilities, schools. Mineral Springs could approve $100,000 to $200,000 houses all day, without input from Union County. Union County would need to fund the new school facilities needed to serve the students generated by these new developments. About five years ago, I was involved in a study that found the typical school capital cost associated with a new house is around $13,000 per home for just the facility (not operating expenses which the state and county share). Assuming that Union County didn't need to provide any other services, it would take over 15 years to pay off the school debt and interest (assuming a $150,000 house and a .71 tax rate which equals a tax bill of $1050).

What's the point. If we don't make plans within a fiscal framework we are making a mistake. It just so happens that certain land use types and patterns of development create different fiscal results. Its simple, a half acre lot with 150' of road frontage has proportionately higher costs to serve than a high rise condominium. And based on the prices you have quoted for a 600 sq. ft. condo downtown, the condo project is a far superior revenue producer for the City. The single family home may have a $500,000 house on it but the high rise condo with 100 units at an average of $300,000 is worth $30,000,000 in tax value and sits on an acre or two . You do the math. This is overly simplified as I do not have the time or room here to explain further. But if you think about it critically, I think you will get what I am trying to say. That one home has 150' of road, water and sewer line in front of it, and requires a car (and roads) to get anywhere. The 100 condos might have a total of 1600 feet of road, water and sewer lines in front of it, and can be served by transit and residents can walk or ride a bike for a portion of their trips.

Finally, what you are talking about for the recreation fee is a fee-in-lieu of land dedication. It is a quasi-impact type fee and the developer can choose to set aside some land for his development or pay a fee-in-lieu of that requirement. A true impact fee would ensure that you are requiring development to fully mitigate its impact on service levels for all services. Some local governments have special authority to charge these fees. Some can charge fees to cover school capital costs for example (mostly in the Triangle region). The only true impact fees authorized in North Carolina cover water and sewer costs that cover the cost for new lines and treatment facilities for example.

Rick Becker said...

Rodger, I believe that you and I are on the same page here...probably even the same sentence of the same paragraph.

I understand the cost of sprawling suburban development and I recognize that not only Union County itself, but certain municipalities within Union County, are the cause of the problem.

Nothing costs county taxpayers more than the capital funding of the school system; take any municipality in the county and its total fiscal needs probably wouldn't equal the county's single school-construction need.

That is why I've included certain municipalities in my rants. They often see a huge property tax windfall in approving thousands of acres of commuter housing and don't give a hoot about the cost to the county. In fact, when I've attended other municipalities' public hearings about rezonings to permit huge residential subdivisions, I've frequently told their governing boards "first, do no harm". I've asked them to weigh the total public cost of the project they're considering against the revenues to only their coffers.

That's why, in Mineral Springs, we don't approve massive subdivisions simply to boost tax revenues. Of the two major subdivisions that received preliminary plat approval in 2008, one was 14 lots and one was 12. A single 35-lot subdivision received final plat approval. We have planned for a mix of uses, including the allocation of approximately 10% of our land area for industrial use, a figure which is very high compared to other municipalities of our size.

As for the condos and the density argument: yes, I find the breathtaking cost of downtown housing to be a problem, and probably something that was overlooked in any "affordability study" portion of CharMeck's comprehensive plan. However, I encourage and defend such housing types, particularly in places like Charlotte, even as "contributors" to this blog bash people like David Walters and Mary for supporting them.

Oh, and the only reason I mentioned the park land-or-fee-in-lieu provisions is simply that they do exist - and that all too many places ignore this potentially beneficial statutory authorization primarily because developers don't like it and most local officials don't like anything developers don't like. I referred to it as "an impact fee of sorts" - which it is - but you won't find anybody more in favor of full impact fees covering all impacts generated by new residential development than I.

Rick said...

From Keith Parker...

"CATS chief executive Keith Parker has discussed seeking more money as a possibility, but he hasn't actively promoted it yet. It's unlikely any new tax would be approved in the next year while the economy is in turmoil."

I guess the CATS representative at the meeting I was at was wrong. As a government agency they don't have any problem discussing seeking more money. Notice, his comment has nothing to do with the turmoil because he's going to seek it after the turmoil hopefully subsides.

Funny timing...

Anonymous said...

I'm sure if you all wait long enough or really maybe not too long, that obama dude will tell you what you can do with the roads and all that money. He's planning to fix everything else, he will be running all of the state governments soon. It's that what all the liberals want? Just wait.