A possible way out of the zoning jungle

February 09, 1997|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE DE GRACE -- Hardly anybody has a good word to say about zoning. It's the great suburban preoccupation, and with good reason.

It affects the look, the character and even the economic future of the places where we live. It's a high-stakes game which no one with a stake in a community can afford to ignore. And as a process, it is almost universally despised except by those who profit from it.

About the only good thing to do with zoning is its intentions, which always seem to have something to do with preserving ''quality of life.'' Otherwise it's a disaster. Since it first got its start in New York City in 1916, it's metastasized into a highly distasteful compound of bureaucratic over-regulation, lawyerly distortions, entrepreneurial greed, authoritarian muscle-flexing by political majorities, fierce class antagonisms, and a prissy sort of pseudo-science called ''planning.''

Its main combatants in the courts and hearing rooms of the nation are the forces of over-development on the one side and of no development at all on the other. In caricature, this pits the sharkskin suits and the bulldozers against the tree-embracers and the flower-sniffers.

So far apart are these extremes that there is a hopeless quality to their endless, bitter disputes.

In Maryland, as in other states, change and zoning go hand in hand. Each new surge in population growth creates powerful demands that government slow it, stop it, control it or manage it -- that it do anything at all but let growth happen. Government usually responds with zoning, which provides the illusion of control, but growth goes on.

Each new master plan, each new comprehensive rezoning cycle, is begun with the expectation that it will succeed where previous efforts have failed. There are more emotional hearings, more lawyers with maps and plastic overlays, more angry neighborhood protests, more compromises. Public officials try desperately to reconcile irreconcilable positions.

But none of this succeeds in freezing time, or in turning it back. People are still being born and forming families and seeking a place to live. It becomes apparent that more roads and shopping centers and wastewater treatment plants are in store, more woodland will be cleared, more farmland subdivided. And so disillusion sets in.

Harford County is experiencing this with unusual intensity right now. Hundreds of properties are up for rezoning. Every political string in sight has angry people pulling on it. Hardly anyone is happy with the process, and just about everyone would like to find some way to depoliticize development while at the same time achieving some sort of neighborhood stability.

One concept that has been discussed, and been tried on a very limited basis, involves something called ''transferable development rights.'' This means, roughly, that if Developer Doodle wants to build 20 new houses on land zoned to allow only 15, he can buy the five extra building rights on the open market from Farmer Foodle. This transaction would be recorded at the courthouse, and would permanently reduce by five the number of houses which may be built on the Foodle farm.

The smell of politics

The idea is not universally popular. People living in the rural neighborhood of the Foodle farm might like it, but those across the road from Doodle's new subdivision clearly won't. And when it was proposed to divide the county by law into ''sending'' areas, that would then be less developed, and ''receiving'' areas, which would get more growth, the smell of politics grew overpowering and resistance to transferring development rights began to build.

At this point, up popped my neighbor and fellow cattleman -Lawrason Sayre with an innovative idea absolutely breathtaking in its simplicity. Let's make building rights transferable countywide, he proposed. And let's require all who want to build more houses than current zoning allows to buy the rights they need to do so.

This would allow Doodle to buy his five extra rights, from Foodle or any other property owner in the county who had rights available for sale. And later on, even if Doodle rezoned part of his tract and sought to build more units still, he would have to go out and buy those rights, too. Otherwise he would not be able to obtain a building permit.

With this plan, farmers would find they have substantial new equity in land that they own but don't want to develop. They could sell their unused building rights, or borrow against them, perhaps to pay inheritance taxes or buy new farm equipment. At the same time, the increased market value of developable farmland would represent new property-tax revenue for the county government.

Making building rights transferable in this manner wouldn't halt development, but it would reduce some of the pressures that now force it into rural areas. And the market's role in directing growth would be increased, while government's would be reduced.

The Sayre proposal has its supporters, but politically influential developers don't seem to be among them. They're at home in the zoning jungle, and would much prefer to leave it undisturbed.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 2/09/97

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