CNU XV Blog, Part 9: Panel on comprehensive plans

MLewyn's picture

The CNU panel on comprehensive plans contained two very different perspectives: one on planning for a not-yet-built-out semirural area, and the other on planning for a big city.

Two panelists spoke on the latter, Matt Raimi (who discussed a mature Los Angeles suburb) and Steven Hammond (who discussed Sacramento). Both focused on mapping out existing neighborhood patterns and using visuals to show possible change. They emphasized that in a mature community, comprehensive plans will essentially reflect the status quo (a depressing possibility in many communities!). Raimi noted that his communities didn't react negatively to density as long as the city doesn't increase density in exisitng residential areas. Although Hammond was less blunt, he pointed out that the Sacramento plan will create numerous "neighborhood types" reflecting the status quo.

Given the planning system's bias in favor of the status quo, how can a plan promote more compact growth? Hammond emphasized (1) identifying "new" (that is, undeveloped) land within the city, and (2) allowing mixed use and higher intensity on streets that are already built for commerce and mixed use. (I wonder if such change would be enough to accommodate market demand for new housing, or whether people would still be forced into suburbia by housing shortages...)

More unusual was Marcela Camblor's presentation on planning in a 28-square mile area at the northern fringe in St. Lucie County- kind of the northern fringe of South Florida (since St Lucie is the county just north of suburbanized Palm Beach County). A few years ago, the county was stuck in an impossible situation due to the stupidity of prior generations of planners: the area in question was outside the urban service boundary, and was zoned for agriculture. So surely the comprehensive plan would be similarly phrased, right? WRONG! Instead, the comp plan provided for "business as usual" sprawl with one acre lots- a fact that incensed existing residents, who moved there precisely to get away from suburbia and to find a rural area.

So how could planners accommodate the collective desire for ruralness? Changing the comp plan to conform to existing zoning was out of the question for legal reasons; apparently, the county had already given developers reason to rely on the concept of SOMETHING being built, which means developers could challenge a "no build" comp plan in court. (I think the county's lawyers could have given a fascinating talk on the legal issues involved).

So the planners chose a smart growth plan as a remedy-allow developers to build, but only in "towns" and "villages" (500 acre parcels, with 60-75% of the land used for open space, and no maximum densities in the rest of the parcel). Camblor asserted that under this plan "sprawl is illegal"- no more 1 acre lots, just building within the towns and villages.

But how could such a plan respect developers' property rights? The plan provides for transferable development rights; if you don't own 500 acres of land, you can sell your right to develop smaller parcels to someone else who can aggregate those rights to build a town or village.

One concern: would this really be able to accommodate all market demand for housing? If density was truly unregulated, the plan might work. But the plan also contains height limits, which is kind of a hidden density regulatoin.


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