The fight over development regulations intensifiesSpawned by the Ashby Tower controversy, the news and opinion as been coming fast and furious in the new year on the fight over planning regulations. Enough creeping regulations have been working their way onto the City Council agenda to finally raise the ire of former Mayor Lanier and the development community, who have formed a political action committee called "Houstonians for Responsible Growth." (Chronicle story) They've partnered with noted anti-planning/pro-free-market activists Randal O'Toole of the libertarian Cato Institute and Wendell Cox. In fact, their "Preserving the American Dream" conference is coming to Houston in May, where they want to hold us up as a model vs. more heavily regulated, planned, and transit-oriented cities like Portland and San Jose.
Chronicle columnist Rick Casey has weighed in, as has David Crossley and blogHouston. Neal Meyer has a in-depth report on a meeting about the traffic ordinance, which sounds like a vague mess with the potential for lots of hassles and abuse. O'Toole himself has posted, but even better are the comments summarizing many of the issues. Then there's this pro-planning/regulation op-ed from the Sunday Chronicle. (Enough links for you yet?)
There's a lot of good material in the comments for many of these articles and posts too. Here's one from the Sunday op-ed that jumped out at me:
I own property in Austin as well as here in Houston. I have lived in highly-structured cities with strict zoning and I have lived in Houston where those are fightin' words. And this is what I have learned:The op-ed it responded to was a bit confused to me. Don't we already have regs addressing trees and permeability/water-retention? There seems to be a straight-forward market solution: the flood control district figures out how much it costs them to handle the runoff from a development, and either charges that (all-at-once or spread over time as taxes) or lets the developer build-in their own retention - their choice. This doesn't require comprehensive planning, just narrowly focused regs, planning and incentives by the flood control district.
Austin is a mess. A beautiful mess, but many people in Austin are destined to live in small ramshackle shacks that they paid dearly for because of the planning and zoning process. Property values in Austin have gone nuts, which is good for me as an investor, but bad for those living on the bottom end of the income spectrum. The ones getting rich are those who are able to gain favor with the planning department for their particular vision for redeveloping this area or that area. Just look at the Muellar Redevelopment project -- building an artificial community and hoping it will stick. The whole concept of 'permeability' is great, until you realize it's really just a code word for 'retention ponds.'
Part of the power of Houston is this open and rational market for property. Why do you think that Houston is the MOST affordable city in the US? Why do you think employers are streaming into Houston? What other big, vibrant city in the US has this standard of living? It's amazing how much home, in as nice a neighborhood, the average working person in Houston can afford! Wasn't Houston just selected as one of the 'greenest cities' in terms of parkland and greenbelts?
Overall, I'm glad the Mayor and city council is going to hear from people like O'Toole and Cox with lots of stats and stories on the impacts of over-regulation. It's too easy for political representatives to pass regs as a knee-jerk response to vocal constituents while ignoring the costs, long-term impacts, and problems they cause for the silent majority. It's good for them to hear both sides and try to chart a balanced course that's good for the city as a whole as well as individual neighborhoods.
Unfortunately, the pressure is building. If the new Lanier PAC fights everything with a "give no ground" posture, the citizen pressure will continue to build until some sort of catastrophic event happens, like voters sweeping in a pro-planning Mayor and council that do some really radical damage to our unique and very successful model.
My recommendation: take advantage of the favorable political climate while we have a reasonable Mayor and city council, and while the well-respected 82-year-old Lanier is still healthy enough to engage. Come up with a comprehensive approach to how development should work here (as opposed to the current patchwork), including a set of principles and streamlined code on deed restrictions to make it easier for neighborhoods to enact consensus (i.e. super-majority) restrictions. In essence, find a free-market policy framework that makes 80% of the citizens happy and marginalizes the radical 10-20% anti-growth controllers, aesthetes, busybodies, and NIMBYs. Instead of duking it out between developers and planning advocates, find a "third-way" that acknowledges and addresses citizen concerns, but with a flexible free market approach instead of top-down comprehensive planning. Now that would be a fine and enduring legacy for Mayor White's final term in office...