Moratoria on Growth Signal Failure of Planning

Moratoria are bold evidence of poor political leadership

Putting a clamp on new housing development seems to be the growth management tactic de jour in more and more Ohio cities. What few citizens and elected officials seem to realize, however, is that growth moratoria are bold evidence of planning failure and poor political leadership.

Moratoria have been around for decades, but they seemed confined to no-growth movements in California until recently. About 13 percent of California cities have housing caps in place, and more than 1,000 planning measures have made it to the ballot box since 1970 according to Solimar Research Group.

In Ohio, moratoria really got a boost in 1996 when Hudson imposed a cap on building permits. Hudson claimed that development outstripped the city’s ability to provide infrastructure for current residents. Capping building permits to slow growth to a crawl was justified and rational according to the U.S. Court of Appeals since it would allow Hudson to catch up on its investment in infrastructure.

A similar scenario is playing out in the more conservative southwest part of the state. The City of Bellbrook recently sent letters to neighboring communities asking them to voluntarily adopt a moratorium until the county—s wastewater treatment plant could be upgraded. The county had failed to invest in new capacity even though development continued in the outlying townships and neighboring cities.

Many citizens blame developers and home builders for tapping out local infrastructure. Without the incessant demand for new construction, they believe, local road, water, and sewer systems wouldn’t be bursting at the seams.

In truth, these cases demonstrate the failure of local planning. In Hudson’s case, the city complained that new development didn’t “pay its way,” but this is a reflection of poor management about how to price sewers and other infrastructure. Dozens of other cities face high growth, but don’t resort to draconian caps on new investment to keep it under control.

Bellbrook’s case is a bit different: the culprit is the county. The city, in fact, has planned well for the infrastructure it controls-primarily roads and water. Greene County, on the other hand, rapidly expanded its sewer capacity without factoring in the maintenance and upgrades necessary to serve existing and planned development effectively. In short, they repeated the mistakes of Hudson.

Sound infrastructure planning doesn’t stop growth, it accommodates it.

Sound infrastructure planning also isn’t a short-term fix. It’s a long-term process that requires diligence, commitment and professionalism. This is why growth moratoria are unsuited to solving a community’s infrastructure problems.

Moratoria have to be short to avoid becoming a government “taking”-a seizure of private property requiring compensation to private land owners. They typically span a year or less. That’s not enough time for a long-term planning process to correct past wrongs.

Moreover, moratoria may add to local problems if they put communities at risk to lawsuits or investment falls dramatically because developers scoot off to more hospitable (and usually greener) pastures.

When does a growth moratorium make sense? Rarely, and only as a last resort.

In Hudson, poor infrastructure planning put the physical health of residents at risk. This also might be the case in Bellbrook if the county doesn’t act soon.

Beyond these dire circumstances, growth moratoria do little to help communities plan effectively or address infrastructure deficiencies. In Hudson, the community simply locked down the housing market, shoving the problems of growth onto neighbors.

Unfortunately, Bellbrook and Hudson are not isolate cases. The City of Pickerington near Columbus and Clearcreek Township in rural Warren County have also adopted housing moratoria or housing permit caps. Dozens of other cities, townships, and counties are considering legislation to curb so-called urban sprawl. Experience suggests these communities would be far better off investing in a reasonable, market-oriented planning that accommodates new development instead of shutting down the local housing market.

Samuel Staley is director of urban and land use policy at Reason Foundation and co-editor of the book “Smarter Growth: Market-Based Strategies for Land-Use Planning in the 21st Century.”

Samuel R. Staley, Ph.D. is a senior research fellow at Reason Foundation and managing director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center at Florida State University in Tallahassee where he teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in urban planning, regulation, and urban economics. Prior to joining Florida State, Staley was director of urban growth and land-use policy for Reason Foundation where he helped establish its urban policy program in 1997.

Staley is the author of several books, most recently co-authoring Mobility First: A New Vision for Transportation in a Globally Competitive 21st Century (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008). Texas Gov. Rick Perry aid Staley and Moore "get it right" and world bank urban planner Alain Bartaud called it "a must read for urban managers of large cities in the United States and around the world."

He is also co-author, with Ted Balaker, of The Road More Traveled: Why The Congestion Crisis Matters More Than You Think, and What We Can Do About It (Rowman and Littlefield, September, 2006). Author Joel Kotkin said, "The Road More Traveled should be required reading not only for planners and their students, but anyone who loves cities and wants them to thrive as real places, not merely as museums, in the 21st Century." Former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters said, "Balaker and Staley clearly debunk the myth that there is nothing we can do about congestion."

Staley's previous book, Smarter Growth: Market-based Strategies for Land-use Planning in the 21st Century (Greenwood Press, 2001), was called the "most thorough challenge yet to regional land-use plans" by Planning magazine.

In addition to these books, he is the author of Drug Policy and the Decline of American Cities (Transaction Publishers, 1992) and Planning Rules and Urban Economic Performance: The Case of Hong Kong (Chinese University Press, 1994).

His more than 100 professional articles, studies, and reports have appeared in publications such as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Investor's Business Daily, Journal of the American Planning Association, Planning magazine, Reason magazine, National Review and many others.

Staley's approach to urban development, transportation and public policy blends more than 20 years of experience as an economic development consultant, academic researcher, urban policy analyst, and community leader.

Staley is a former chair for his local planning board in his hometown of Bellbrook, Ohio. He is also a former member of its Board of Zoning Appeals and Property Review Commission, vice chair of his local park district's open space master plan committee, and chair of its Charter Review Commission.

Staley received his B.A. in Economics and Public Policy from Colby College, M.S. in Social and Applied Economics from Wright State University, and Ph.D. in Public Administration, with concentrations in urban planning and public finance from Ohio State University.