Growth Buffers Are Wrong Tool for Indiana Planners

Plan will likely prevent local housing market from meeting emerging housing demands

Homebuilders and land developers in Indiana are worried that a new model of comprehensive plan might restrict their ability to provide the best housing at an affordable price. Experience suggests their concerns have merit.

The most controversial element of this type of plan are the “urban growth boundaries;” that is, land-use regulations designating certain areas off limits to new development for a specified period of time.

Bloomington has attempted something of this sort. Portland, Oregon, however, may be the most widely recognized region with a regional growth boundary. Several cities in California have adopted them, and Florida’s statewide growth-management law effectively mandates them as part of its official policy of discouraging urban sprawl.

Most recently, a discussion in Allen County has focused on where such lines are to be drawn. The real issue, though, is the fact that the lines exist at all in a plan that is likely to become policy. That should concern affordable housing advocates and others interested in promoting a diverse, dynamic and reasonably priced housing in the Fort Wayne region.

A comprehensive plan is supposed to guide growth in the region. But these “growth buffers” presume knowledge of the local housing market and a level of certainty about what type of housing people will want in the future. It is a presumption that the regional planners simply can’t justify.

Such planning documents, with their emphasis on land use, take a typically supply-side approach to housing development, largely ignoring consumer preferences for different housing types and locations. This will inevitable create mismatches in the housing market and, ultimately, lead to housing price increases.

These plans are rationalized by the goal of reining in urban sprawl. Sprawl is low-density commercial and housing development – big houses on big yards. Some planners also call it “haphazard.” It is a convenient buzz word but one that lacks content and substance for guiding land-use policy.

That is because present land development is not haphazard. People aren’t buying houses randomly without thinking about the quality of the housing, the neighborhood, the commute or access to basic services. Land development is haphazard only in that patterns may not conform to a pre-conceived and perhaps political notion of what development should look like, i.e., the ideal of higher density, smaller yards, physically next to another pre-existing neighborhood (for comparison, think of the older neighborhoods in your community and the newer subdivisions).

The danger is that by restricting land development, planners and the regulatory process impede the ability of the local housing market to meet emerging housing demands and needs. This likely will reduce the supply of housing in your area in two ways: 1) By creating more regulatory hurdles for developers; and 2) perhaps more importantly, by creating a mismatch between the kind of housing people want (large, semi-private yards) and what builders can supply. Again, both effects contribute to higher housing prices down the road and reduce the ability of the local housing market to meet the changing needs of households and families.

Planners and local officials may have legitimate concerns about the pattern and pace of development in Indiana cities. They need to be careful, though, to use the right policy tools that have the least distorting impacts on the land market and housing industry.

Growth buffers or urban growth boundaries are blunt and ineffective instruments for achieving the efficiencies that political groups say they want in their push for a new planning process.

Samuel R. Staley, Ph.D., is director of Urban and Land Use Policy for Reason Foundation and adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Staley is co-author of the forthcoming book The Road More Traveled: Why The Congestion Crisis Matters More Than You Think, and What We Can Do About It. (Rowman and Littlefield, Fall 2006). An archive of his work is here and Reason’s urban growth research and commentary is here.