Shouldn't Smart Growth Appeal to Conservatives?

 

As this blog has reported, the standard conservative critique of smart growth and “good” planning sometimes doesn’t seem very logical. Sometimes these critiques were based on the assumption that any government intrusion into land markets is bad – whether it creates higher density or lower density – and sometimes they’re based on the assumption that smart growth inevitably promotes higher-density development when what the market really wants is low-density development. Indeed, my good friend Wendell Cox sometimes espouses both these views at the same time.

Which is why the conservatives who came to the defense of smart growth the other day at the New Partners for Smart Growth conference in Kansas City were so refreshing. They didn’t agree with everything smart growthers advocate – indeed, they were assiduous in shooting down anything that smelled like big government – but they did a good job of identifying the situations in which conservatives should support smart growth.

Virginia blogger Jim Bacon and Long Island law professor Michael Lewyn both landed in more or less the same place: Traditional suburban zoning represents heavy-handed government regulation that robs people of their liberty and property rights. “What kind of society outlaws granny flats?” asked Bacon, who runs a blog called Bacon’s Rebellion.

Lewyn, a professor at Tauro Law School, went further and articulated a heavy conservative critique of minimum parking requirements, saying not only that they rob people of their property rights but also that they hinder real estate development by taking property out of play. “If the spaces are above ground, these requirements are taking money from your hands,” Lewyn said. “If they’re underground, you pay have to pay money to build the parking units.”

In addition, Bacon hit hard on the fiscal effects of smart growth and sprawl. He said conservatives should be opposed to the practice – especially common in red states – of having the government pay for all the infrastructure costs associated with new development. “That’s crony capitalism,” he said.

This is a mighty different critique than we typically see from Cox, his buddy Joel Kotkin, and academics like my USC Price School colleague Peter Gordon. They typically begin with the assumption that low-density development is the natural order of things and therefore any move toward higher density must be the result of government regulation. Indeed, as I have previously reported, not long ago on Larry Mantle’s Los Angeles radio show, Wendell and I agreed that regulations should be lightened so that developers can be more responsive to the marketplace – but he then railed about SB 375, saying that it would cause (I am paraphrasing here from memory) “30 units an acre in neighborhoods that have five 5 units an acre for decades and decades.” The idea that the market might want higher density and property owners ought to have the right to cash in on this changing market didn’t seem to occur to him.

In that sense Cox represents trods a well-worn path in conservative suburbia – the desire to retain one’s own property rights while making sure nobody else is able to cash in on theirs. Bacon, in particular, called his fellow conservatives out on this paradox and went on to say that conservative Republican politicians are more than happy to exploit it. “In Virginia,” he said, “Republicans see their constituents as their red spots on the electoral map. They’ve written off the urban areas. They are focused on the areas that consume a lot of gasoline and are committed to existing form of development.”

There was one area where both Bacon and Lewyn appeared to strongly part company with the smart growthers: Both strongly opposed government-funded public transit. Transit is, of course, a core part of the smart growth agenda and virtually all major transit systems in the United States – and in the world, for that matter – are run by public agencies that make up for farebox deficits with tax revenue. To both Bacon and Lewyn, this appears to be top-down government intrusion at its worst.

“The traditional municipal-transit model is broken,” Bacon said. “None make a profit, all are undercapitalized and starved for resources. Why would that be? Gee, maybe because they are government monopolies dealing with labor unions.”