Out of Control Policy Blog

NIMBYs and Dysfunctional Planning in NOVA

A recent Washington Post article on the proposal to ring the Tyson's Corner Center mall with mid-rise office and condominium towers offers a glimpse into the workings of the kind of dysfunctional planning and development approval system so prevalent nationwide. The proposal would bring a massive mixed use, transit-oriented (the area is slated for a Metrorail extension), residential and office development to this classic "edge city." The article describes the developers' presentation to a local civic group and the hostility with which they were received.

    But neither the pictures nor the rhetoric seemed to move the audience, which numbered about 30. The group interrupted the presentation more than a dozen times with no-nonsense questions that betrayed a familiarity with planners' argot. There were references to "floor-area ratio," parking requirements and the comprehensive plan. At least a few times, the statements verged on hostile.

    "We're not that naive," Susan Turner, [McLean Citizens] association president, told attorney Antonio J. Calabrese, in disputing the project's tax benefits. "Please don't use that [figure] again."

    As Fairfax County politicians, developers and business leaders push to transform the Tysons Corner area into a more traditional downtown, dozens of such meetings with well-organized civic groups, many of them experienced in sparring with developers, are likely to play a critical role.

    To win approval for large-scale projects, county leaders often require developers to seek the favor of surrounding communities, an approach that amounts to the developer engaging in something like a political campaign.

    It is unclear whether developers can create a traditional downtown at Tysons Corner, as county leaders want, while also heeding neighborhood demands.

Irrespective of the merits of this particular proposal, it explifies a structural defect in the planning process. Despite the fact that since 1994, the County's comprehensive plan has designated this area for higher-density, "downtown"-style development, County elected officials then turn around and implicitly force developers to engage in a dialogue with community groups that may or may not have any tangible stake in the project's outcome:

    When developers have sought his vote in a zoning case, [Fairfax Board Chairman Gerald E.] Connolly has advised them to "show me the witch's broom" -- as the Wizard of Oz required of Dorothy -- meaning the developers must demonstrate that they have addressed neighborhood concerns.

    "It's a way of ensuring that developers feel obligated to enter into a dialogue with the community," Connolly said. "We don't do land-use by plebiscite. [But] we try to let people vent. We try to get them engaged."

It is exactly this kind of politicization of land use that distorts the real estate market by raising the costs and uncertainty associated with the development approval process. And by giving disproportionate weight to parochial, short-term interests, the regulatory process can render long-range plans meaningless and tends to discount the needs of future residents. What's the point of having a plan for high-density development if you're going to then open the floor to the groups whose primary goal is to derail it? Along this line of thinking, check out this 2001 Reason study, which offers a detailed look at how plans and reality have diverged in Ventura County, CA and the associated logical implications.

And rampant NIMBYism has other deleterious consequences, whether you're pro-market or pro-smart growth:

    Anti-development pressure from homeowner groups and other organizations already has made a significant mark on the suburbs: More than half of the land surrounding the nation's capital is now protected from typical suburban housing development, according to The Washington Post's review of land plans in 14 counties in Virginia and Maryland.

    Some argue that catering to not-in-my-backyard concerns can lead to decisions that sacrifice the greater good of the region. These neighborhood organizations have run afoul of environmental groups that often support dense developments as an antidote to sprawl.

    "It's very frustrating," said Roger Diedrich, chairman of the Sierra Club's Virginia chapter, who lives in Fairfax. "It's natural for people to look at things from close to home. I think we're just looking at things from a broader perspective."

Advocates of high-density development are frustrated by NIMBY opposition to densification efforts. Advocates of market-oriented planning are frustrated by NIMBY opposition to market-driven density and their support of strong growth management policies. And, most importantly, the resulting housing shortages drive up costs and send average Joe families further and further away from the metro area core to find affordable housing (see this post). No one wins when the NIMBYs get their way -- except the NIMBYs.

A 2003 Reason piece offers an alternative to the type of highly-politicized situation we're seeing in Fairfax County:

    A key local land use control issue these days is the public approval process of housing and commercial developments. Opposition to growth and development has grown, with resistance to growth in various forms sometimes so severe that it has prompted such monikers as NIMBYs (not in my backyard), LULUs (locally unwanted land use), and BANANAs (build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything). The forces behind this resistance range from concerned local citizens worried about property values and neighborhood changes to environmental groups worried about air quality and ecosystem preservation. Regardless of the motive, the outcome of their opposition is often to deny property owners their preferred use of their land and thus diminish their property rights.

    Public officials, recognizing voter concerns about growth, have resisted high-density housing, particularly apartments or low cost housing. Developers are forced to go elsewhere usually further to the urban perimeter where growth opposition is less intense. The result is more sprawl and often housing supply that doesn't keep pace with demand.

    So, how might we sustain people's property rights and still exercise reasonable local control that sometimes restricts property rights? Local control must move from the project approval and debate level to a more strategic level. Instead of hashing out each development project in public hearings dominated by activists and lobbyists, cities should provide guidance in broader specific area plans that provide a general direction for the local area. Cities should seek out input from only local neighborhood residents on broad directions for the community, not ballot box zoning or decisions on individual projects. Necessary project level decisions could be left to appointed planning commissions to depoliticize project approvals. Citizens and city councils would get involved when plans are periodically reviewed and changed.

Leonard Gilroy is Director of Government Reform


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