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.”