By. Neil Williamson, President
Every now and again, a media release will cross my desk and really make me dig deeper into the issue. Such was the case earlier this week when the following was released by Steve Williams, Executive Director of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission:
CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA – On Monday, November 22, 2010, the Charlottesville-Albemarle Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) Policy Board will reveal specific details on the activities to be undertaken to implement sustainability goals for the entire Charlottesville/Albemarle community. This longer term process is expected to dramatically improve land use practices and limit our imprint on the environment to improve the sustainability of the region. The meeting begins at 4 pm at the TJPDC’s Water Street Center.
Last month, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) awarded nearly $1 million to the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission (TJPDC) to implement plans that foster sustainable communities. TJPDC, on behalf of the MPO and in partnership with Albemarle County and the City of Charlottesville, applied for a portion of nearly $100 million available through HUD’s new Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant Program. The grant funds will enable the region to work toward implementing the sustainability principles that were developed over a four-year period in the 1990’s and commonly known as the Sustainability Accords.
Regular blog readers know that the MPO is a federally mandated, federally funded organization charged with regional transportation planning. The TJPDC serves as staff to the MPO but also serves other planning functions.
As if the alphabet soup was not deep enough now Now HUD is awarding federal funds ($999,000) to the TJPDC to “to implement plans that foster sustainable communities” and the policy board of the MPO is revealing “specific details”.
In a June 25th post to the White House Blog, trumpeting the federal program providing the funding for this grant, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan blamed “sprawl” for a variety of the nation’s ills. Secretary Donovan also blamed real estate agents and lenders for the challenges of housing and transportation:
For all the implications of “sprawl”—from job loss, economic decline and segregation, to obesity, asthma rates, to climate change and our dangerous dependence on foreign oil—all of them share by one fundamental problem: the mismatch between where we live and where we work. Whatever else we do to address these problems, America must find a way to connect housing to jobs. . . .
…During the housing boom, real estate agents suggested to families that couldn’t afford to live near job centers that they could find a more affordable home by living farther away. Lenders bought into the “Drive to Qualify” myth as well – giving easy credit to homebuyers without accounting for how much it might cost families to live in these areas or the risk they could pose to the market.
With all due respect, the Secretary fails to recognize the choices American homebuyers (not agents) were facing to live in the suburbs instead of the closer in communities. Faced with the choice of a small home (or apartment) without a yard in a densely populated area versus a larger home with a yard in a less dense area, a significant cohort chose the yard.
Later in the blog post, Secretary Donovan lays out the methodology of this planning/transportation exercise:
Where the Transportation program will fund planning activities that relate directly to a future transportation capital investment, HUD’s program will fund land-use related planning activities and affordable housing strategies that will be linked to that investment. This funding will make it possible for communities to hire staff with the expertise needed to remove barriers communities face to sustainable development. [emphasis added – nw]
Wrapped in this vision of “more sustainable communities” is a Planner Employment plan. Considering the media release’s language “dramatically improve land use practices and limit our imprint on the environment”. The Free Enterprise Forum is very concerned with the direction of these dollars.
We have seen this movie before. Rather than “removing barriers” to sustainable development, we have seen such efforts in the past become mandates for specific design criteria. The government goes too far when it dictates design criteria, that’s the market’s job. Based on our experiences, we pay very close attention when the government comes in to help “dramatically improve land use practices”.
While we understand the TJPDC/MPO’s excitement about receiving almost a million dollars to study sustainability, the Free Enterprise Forum believes this tax money could be better spent (though we are not given this option) on transportation and transit improvements that would make our current community more sustainable rather than flying in more west coast consultants to tell us what our sustainable future should look like.
Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a privately funded public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna and Nelson County. For more information visit the website www.freeenterpriseforum.org