December 17, 2006

Land use

It is generally understood that there is an environmental need to stop or slow down the development of land. A way to avoid this is to redevelop land already built on with more density. But how do we reconcile this with the common human desire for space and lawns? Sprawling development has hurt our environment, and we could halt that with denser infill development. Our society would have to continue becoming more and more urban, but how can more people be convinced to live in tight clusters of houses or apartment buildings when they don't already have a reason, such as a job downtown in a large city? Is it even natural to live in such close quarters? Supposedly human nature looks for the sort of environment found in a savanna.

Here in Athens, the local government is struggling to figure out how to implement a policy of preserving a region of agricultural land and forests dubbed the "greenbelt." Ideally, sprawl will be controlled and population will grow in the city center rather than the fringes. A few years ago a new zoning law was passed to require ten acres per house in the agricultural zone, but the immediate problem is that those landowners cannot sell land for subdivisions or development the way owners in other zones may be able to. It is understood that this is not fair.

The next step in the county's plan is to start a program of transferrable development rights (TDRs). Instead of selling off land, agricultural owners could sell development rights to be used in another area of town where they will allow a property to be built or rebuilt more densely. That means instead of an in-town property owner asking to be given a rezoning for free, they could buy the right to build more densely. Unfortunately, the first problem is that the sending and receiving zones have to be determined, and such a plan may become controversial due to the NIMBY effect in the receiving zones. The second problem is that the whole idea creates a logistical nightmare in setting up the market.

TDRs are nothing new, but a news article today points out that the challenge is to tailor a plan that will work in Athens. New York City started using TDRs in the 1970s, and they were basically purchased to build an extra tall building in one location in exchange for limiting the building height on another property. In southern New Jersey and on New York's Long Island, TDR programs were set up to preserve pine barrens. In Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, a program was set up to preserve working farms.

It is interesting to note that farms are often an environmentally damaging use of land, even though they are counted as "greenspace." Athens wants to preserve its greenspace, and I am not sure if the government is making a distinction between farms and forests. It is also interesting to note that Georgia has more land covered by forests now than it did 100 years ago because more farmland going out of use got covered with trees than with building or roads, despite all the growth since then. Finally, it is noteworthy that the Athens greenbelt is more of an ideal than a reality since the outlying areas have had sporadic development eat holes in the green, and that is why the county commission felt the urgency to pass restrictive zoning even before a TDR program was ready.

Anyway, over the holidays I hope to read Land Use Planning and Development Regulation Law. It is a hornbook that covers many land use, planning, and zoning topics. I need to understand the nuts and bolts of zoning and other kinds of law before I can enter this debate as more than a layman.

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