Is the Lorax Guilty of Snob Zoning?

By. Neil Williamson, President

Let me open with a disclaimer – I love beach reading. 

I was t"Snob Zones" by Liza Prevost was released Tuesday, May 7 and covers Darien and other New England towns' zoning regs.hrilled to be able to take a few days off with the family for a beach trip late last month.  While some might have preferred the new Dan Brown novel, my  primary book this trip was  Lisa Prevost’s Snob Zoning.

Prevost is an award winning journalist who has written extensively about real estate for the New York Times.  Her articles have also appeared in the Boston Globe, Boston Globe Magazine, More, Ladies’ Home Journal , and other publications.

In this rather well researched, short tome, Prevost outlines specific New England instances where existing residents use restrictive local zoning to eliminate the potential of “undesirable” affordable housing.  

Every reader will examine this book with their own perspective but many passages reminded me of the Charlottesville region, or where some would like it to be.

“As the wealthiest town in Litchfield County, Roxbury (CT) can financially afford its pull-up-the-drawbridge mentality.  The wealthy weekenders pay far more in taxes than they demand in services, thereby making up for the town’s nearly nonexistent commercial base.  the top ten taxpayers on the town’s grand list are, in fact, homeowners. ‘That’s our industry,’ says Gary Steinman, a biomedical engineer who operates a consulting practice out of his Roxbury home. ‘If we lose our rurality, we would lose that industry.’  But by refusing to make room for any higher density housing, Roxbury is contributing to a regional affordable housing shortage that affects most of the northwest corner.”

Over the last ten years, I have heard countless times that it is the “ruralness” of Albemarle County that makes our part of the world unique.  Preservation of such rural integrity is a priority for the Board of Supervisors even as such rural protection runs in conflict with their housing affordability goals.

This passage was also front of mind this morning as I read Sean Tubbs’ Daily Progress article on development projects in the City of Charlottesville and members of City Council’s concerns over their design and projected populations.

“[City Councilor Dede] Smith also wanted to know what population was being attracted to Charlottesville based on the nature of the new developments.

“Who is going to live at City Walk?” Smith asked. “Our number of families is declining in the city and it has been stated as a priority that we would like to at least maintain or grow housing for families.”

Reading between the lines, the question seems to be ‘are the right kind of people going to live at City Walk?’.  Isn’t this the very type of exclusionary thinking that could be called ‘Snob Zoning’?

Is this really what the City should determine or should the land owner, who is taking the financial risk seek to provide what the market will bear?

The concept of using zoning to preclude types of developments, or even specific tenants, is not limited to Charlottesville.  Paula Hawthorne of The Central Virginian reports of resident objections with a proposed Family Dollar retail outlet in Mineral. Under the front page banner headline “No welcome mat for Family Dollar”: 

“Residents Debbie and James Glass are against having Family Dollar in their neighborhood.  “I don’t want it in my backyard,” Debbie said.

Prevost reports such NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard) clearly fueled the density discussion in Ossipee New Hampshire where the town enacted regulation that was so restrictive the Zoning chairman Mark McConkey said:

“‘I believe the spirit of this ordinance was to deny the opportunity for multifamily housing to go forward in this town.  I believe it is the intent of the ordinance whether it is right or wrong.’

McConkey’s startling admission was as good as a gift, from Viscarello’s perspective.  First thing the next morning, he dispatched a paralegal to Ossipee.  He wanted a copy of the hearing tapes before anything could happen to them.  Two months later, after failed attempts to get the board to reconsider its denial, Great Bridge sued the town in superior court.”

I will not divulge how the court case turned out suffice it to say the twists of the case made for great reading.

Perhaps the most interesting case study in the book focused on Watch Hill, Rhode Island where an area known as Napatree is 90% owned by the Watch Hill Fire District.  The District and another Parcel owner  The Watch Hill Conservancy entered into an agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service authorizing the service to manage the federally protected piping plover population.  According to Prevost:

The fire district and conservancy had taken it upon themselves to hire wardens and put up signs.

This new arrangement was necessary to protect Napatree from overuse.  Conservancy officials pointed to a study’ they’d commissioned that concluded extensive human (and canine) use was harming the dunes, along with the well-being of threatened birds like the plovers…

…If preserving Napatree was a laudable goal, the locals who regularly roamed its shores were not convinced conservation was the sole aim.  “There was a sense that somehow the conservancy and fire district were trying to exclude people,’ says Steven Hartford, Westerly’s town manager.  The warning that “permission may be withdrawn at any time” sounded like some like a threat.  

This is a concern I have often heard voiced in Central Virginia as land owners enter into conservation easements and then find they may not be able to do what they wish with the land due to the restrictive language of the easement.

Often in local public policy, an oversimplification of developer vs. the-lorax-pic09environmentalist is put forth as the story line.  Very rarely are the lines that clear. 

Regularly, the Suessical Lorax imagery is brought forth to cast the development interests in a negative light.  The Rhode Island case was demonstrative of this issue.

“Although he knows that the preservation of eelgrass beds is important for sustaining healthy fisheries populations DeGrooth is openly suspicious of the Watch Hill groups’ push for more control over the anchorage, an area the general public has freely enjoyed access,”They’re using the curtain of environmental protection for a completely different agenda,” he charges. “they are not dumb.  They are very slow, very methodical.””

In many cases, I see folks who feign environmental concern simply to restrict the lawful development of property that they do not own.  Unfortunately, I tend to agree with the author that the NIMBY or CAVE (Citizens Against Virtually Everything) have the political upper hand.  

In his book review, John Ross writes on Reason.com:

Prevost sees little hope of changing entrenched attitudes about multi-family housing developments. “This is a world where facts are irrelevant,” says a demographer she spoke to. “I’ve explained over and over again that workforce housing is not Section 8 housing with welfare recipients packed in there.”

Snobs dominate local politics and are unlikely to embrace relaxed zoning codes any time soon. Change may yet come, though, as the demand for single-family homes subsides. The next generation simply isn’t as enamored of low-density living as baby boomers were.

With a subtitle of “Fear, Prejudice, and Real Estate” Lisa Prevost’s Snob Zones should be required reading for all Planning Commissioners, Zoning Boards, Boards of Supervisors and City Councils. 

Beyond just a great beach read, this book has the potential to make a difference.  By spotlighting these overzealous zoning regulations and the fortress mentality of NIMBYism that created them, readers will likely reexamine  land-use drawbridge regulatory impacts (intended and unintended) on the entire community.

Respectfully submitted,

Neil Williamson

clip_image0024_thumb.pngNeil Williamson is the President of the Free Enterprise Forum, a local government public policy organization located in Charlottesville.  www.freeenterpriseforum.org

Photo Credits : Universal Pictures, Beacon Press

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3 responses

  1. Glad to see you’re still reading the Central Virginia and keeping an eye towards Louisa County!!! Enjoy the post and look forward to reading the book.

  2. […] a blog post just under a year ago, Is the Lorax Guilty of Snob Zoning?, we raised concerns of so called “Snob Zoning” in Central Virginia.  Included in that post […]

  3. […] a blog post just under a year ago, Is the Lorax Guilty of Snob Zoning?, we raised concerns of so called “Snob Zoning” in Central Virginia.  Included in that post […]

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