Monday, December 09, 2002

A Zoning Lawyer's Lament

On the way to my 30th high school reunion in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, I detoured to tour Fallingwater, the Frank Lloyd Wright house in Bear Run, PA, built over a waterfall for the Kaufman family, of Pittsburgh department store fame. I found a link to something in the recruiting video that the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, the nonprofit to which the Kaufman heir gifted the house, makes you watch at the end of a tour. The WPC makes the point that their work beautifying cities helps preserve the countryside. In fact, the organization got its start raising money to landscape a new parkway in Pittsburgh.

On my return to Phoenix, I wound up thinking about the ugliness of my new commute down Thomas Road, which managed to get linked in my mind with a local dispute where a high-end neighborhood (full of people who make their upscale living off development) is riled by development in their neighborhood. It's a variant of the old zoning problem. You've heard of NIMBY? Well, this is NIMNBYE--Not In My Neighbor's Back Yard, Either.


East Valley Tribune, Dec. 8, 2002

Lots of folks believe in "private property rights" -- but what they really mean they can do what they want with their property, then tell their neighbors what they can do with their property.

It's an elastic and extraordinarily convenient philosophy; people just love demanding more of others than themselves.

It also lets well-connected neighborhoods get better, while the rest of us watch our surroundings decay.

Consider the example of neighbors of the Arizona Biltmore Resort in Phoenix, upset over the Resort's construction of a four-story parking garage. The Biltmore had all necessary approvals for the project; the City of Phoenix approved the zoning nine years ago, and the owners pulled building permits without needing public hearings, neighborhood notification, or permission from guy across the street.

The 49-foot-high concrete garage is not the world’s most aesthetically-pleasing building. It’s a 49-foot-high concrete garage, and as unappealing as dozens built at shopping centers, offices, and resorts throughout the Valley. But it has angered the Biltmore neighbors, who now seek changes to Phoenix development ordinances to provide more notice, access to plan information, and meetings between neighbors and developers prior to construction.

In other words, they want new government programs and additional required notices, meetings, and approvals before other property owners get to use their property.

The garage is mostly finished, but for future projects, the Biltmore neighbors will probably get what they want. Heck, the Phoenix City Council once invented a special zoning category just to prevent building on the Biltmore golf courses, so some politically-connected neighbors could keep their wonderful views over somebody else’s undeveloped property.

The city will write an ordinance giving municipal officials some discretion to require neighborhood notification and consultation for preliminary site plan reviews and building permits if the project is high-profile and expensive enough. In this case, “expensive” actually means the price of the neighbors’ homes; live in a pricey enough neighborhood, you’ll get “enhanced” notice -- so your neighbors must jump through additional hoops to use their property.

One Biltmore neighbor who works in the construction industry suddenly got religion once the “big square box” started going up near his house. He’s still pro-growth, but now worried to a newspaper reporter that if we don’t take sufficient care, he and his neighbors risk eliminating the very qualities that make the neighborhood special.

Hey -- that’s one powerful garage to make a construction consultant sound like a Sierra Clubber!

Problem is, the Biltmore neighbors are right, but they’ll probably use their clout to fix only their particular problem, so the rich will just keep getting richer. Meanwhile, the vast majority of the Valley (both area and population) will just keep getting the same old same old.

There's a civic improvement group back east, the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, with a two-fold mission. The Conservancy buys ecologically-significant parcels and assembles nature preserves in the countryside, but in its home city of Pittsburgh, aggressively sponsors civic beautification projects. The organization realized that making cities more appealing and attractive reduces pressures for development on the fringes. If city-dwellers see beauty around them, they don’t clamor as much to live far away, which helps preserve those rural areas.

The Biltmore neighbors have the right fear. After all, we do exactly the opposite here. We won’t ever consider making urban life more attractive; instead, we've organized to create and anesthetized ourselves to endure ugly and unappealing cities. Drive down Apache, or Broadway, or Thomas, and look around. Is there nothing we can do? Is there any question why people head for the desert instead?

But rather than wrestle with these issues, instead we’ll spend our time, and money, trying to make things even nicer at the Biltmore.

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