Tuesday, March 02, 2010

REBIC's long list of 'No's'

Several months back I had coffee with the affable Andy Munn, policy director for the Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition, aka REBIC, the most influential local real estate and development lobbying group. I got the idea that the group, which in the past has had (my words here, not his) a "Just Say No" reputation among local government staffers and environmental and planning activists, might be trying to change its image a bit.

Fast forward to Monday night's City Council meeting ("Foxx: Be flexible with developers"), where REBIC members were out in force. Mayor Anthony Foxx had put onto the agenda a staff presentation about a cluster of new measures that REBIC doesn't like:
- the proposed (not yet adopted) stronger tree ordinance.
- the Urban Street Design Guidelines policy (not yet adopted into ordinances and thus, not required of developers, either)
- the post-construction controls ordinance (the only one developers currently must actually follow). Many big guns were in attendance: Bill Daleure of Crosland Inc., Ned Curran of the Bissell Companies, as well as Charlotte Chamber honcho Bob Morgan.

As the Observer editorial board opined this morning ("Don't let 'flexible' morph into 'gutting' ") just building cheap isn't always smart. When you add in the future costs to taxpayers to retrofit and expand your street network/restore polluted streams/mitigate flooding -- i.e. millions of dollars -- it makes the estimated increment of $1,900 to $2,900 to the cost of new housing (spread over a 30-year mortgage) seem a bit less of a problem.

That said, a city that didn't look seriously at the combined effects of its regulations on the costs of building would be irresponsible. The point is to look at the big picture and make intelligent choices, as best you can. Further, I hear developers of all types, not just the REBIC types, complain about bureaucratic nightmares dealing with multiple government agencies on complicated plans and technical issues. So complaints about lack of flexibility and/or inconsistencies resonate with me.

But here's a problem: Even when REBIC has legitimate points it's virtually impossible to sort them out from the cloud of anti-everything rhetoric it's been floating for something like 30 years.

I recall a famous scene when then-REBIC executive director Mark Cramer spoke at a City Council debate in 1998 over whether to require developers to build more sidewalks in new subdivisions. Of course REBIC opposed it, because it would force developers to spend more money on subdivisions. (Though I must say I doubt they had to shrink their profit margins.) Cramer, after listening to pleas for good sidewalks on behalf of children, the elderly and people in wheelchairs, noted that sidewalks are good things. But, he added: "You can have too much of a good thing.''

I think REBIC and its close relative, the Chamber's land use committee, would have more credibility in many of its complaints if it hadn’t, over the years, fought virtually every environmental and growth-management measure proposed by local governments, dating to before the term Smart Growth was even invented.

It's a long list. It includes: the city bicycle plan, the floodplain ordinance, the stream buffer ordinance, watershed ordinances, the aforementioned sidewalk requirements, a county farmland preservation measure, a pilot project in Huntersville to preserve rural land and efforts a few decades ago to channel the overdevelopment in South Charlotte into other areas by limiting where new sewer lines are built. (That last is a classic planning technique being used all over the country – but not in Charlotte-Mecklenburg. Developer John Crosland Jr. simply got state government to give him permits for private sewer plants and kept on building subdivisions.)

Quite an impressive list of opposition, I'd say. And to be fair I will note that anyone is free to lobby any elected official on anything. When environmental regulations and planning initiatives are gutted or stalled for years, and when city staff is ordered to "compromise with developers" over already-compromised proposals – a tradition staffers hired from other metro areas have told me privately they're shocked to hear here – it's elected officials who do that, not REBIC.


J said...

Mary, I'm sure you recall writing a few months back about some elected leaders dropping their opposition to developers' wishes for as little as $1,000 in campaign contributions. That's one problem - politicians who can be bought at ridiculously low prices because they are 100% concerned with getting re-elected and 0% concerned with doing good business for their constituents. The other problem is the REBIC-types being anti-everything. I agree that their complaints would have more credibility if the regulations were reducing their profits. Of course everyone knows they aren't.

I wish more companies were like mine. Duke Energy is in support of climate change legislation, even though we know it will cost us more to do business, because the benefit to everyone of having cleaner air is more important than having the absolute lowest possible costs. If only our local developers would realize this.

All that being said, our local government needs to streamline things on their end much more, so developers don't get opposite information from each department they have to work with. Our local government is particularly fractured and inefficient. That has to be cleaned up.

consultant said...

When you hear a developer say,

"It cost too much to build here",

what they really mean is these requirements will cut into my already healthy profits.

Many developers, especially those from Atlanta, have an enlarged ego that says "I" should be able to build whatever "I" want as long as "I" own the land. All regulations are seen as communist plots to deprive them of their freedom.

These are the same people who often use every trick in the book to deprive other individuals, groups or neighborhoods of their freedom to have a say in determining how their neighborhood grows.

There are good builders and developers out here. But they, like the 3 good Republicans left in that so called Party, are an endangered species.

Remember-stay away from Atlanta developers.

Brendan said...

The thing that developers don't tell you is how much more expensive it is for the city to support their unbridled growth. I guess the developers don't have to worry about the cost of extending sewer lines, supplying stronger water pressure over longer distances, widening roads, building freeways, expanding electrical services.