Hometown Democracy: Should We Give Citizens the Right to Vote on Proposed Development Projects?

By Dom Nozzi

I worked as a long-range town planner for 20 years.

In 2007, a constitutional amendment was advanced in the state of Florida that would give citizens the right to vote on whether they approve of or disapprove of a proposed development in the community, or a proposal to change the zoning or land use designation of a property. On the surface of it, such a form of direct democracy sounds like a great idea.

But is it?

Over the past several decades in America, even town center residents (who live in a relatively dense, compact, mixed use location) have regularly been angry opponents of infill development in very appropriate locations.

This is predictable.

Predictable for two reasons. First, because nearly all development that has occurred over the past century has been awful, car-based schlock. And second, because when one lives in a world of massive subsidies for car travel and suburban sprawl, the citizen concern that overwhelms all others is the single-minded focus on MINIMIZING DEVELOPMENT EVERYWHERE.admin-ajax (7)

The citizen must plead for this because nearly all Americans live in dispersed, low-density, single-use locations that require car travel for nearly every trip. This means that the number one priority for most Americans is minimizing density (or opposing any form of new development) everywhere (including in the relatively dense town center, where compact development is most appropriate and desirable).

Why?

Because cars consume space so voraciously, car travel becomes dysfunctional and nearly intolerable with even a relatively small population. The level of frustration goes up exponentially when the neighborhood population increases, because there will now be even more people consuming enormous amounts of road and parking space!

Therefore, if one is compelled by community design and government subsidies to drive everywhere, the only possible community design agenda is to angrily oppose density increases (or any new development) every time it is proposed – and no matter where it is proposed. I am (but shouldn’t be) astonished by how many times I’ve seen even town center neighborhood residents fight like the dickens to oppose new development (and the fear that “spillover” parking by the new development will take away “our” neighborhood parking) in or nearby the neighborhood. Again, this is predictable in a society where car pampering — and the extreme car dependence that results from such artificial promotion of the car — means that nearly all of us have a vested interest in fighting to stop new development.

The same sort of negative citizen response regularly occurs if there is a proposal to change the zoning or land use of a property within the community. After all, one would think that the adopted land use and zoning plan for a community is designed to promote quality of life. It therefore seems wise to “follow what the community long-range plan specifies for land use and zoning designations,” instead of letting some “greedy developer” harm the community plan by selfishly changing such designations.

However, city and county land use and zoning maps don’t tend to be a “plan” at all. For nearly all communities, the adopted land use and zoning maps are not designations chosen by planners, citizens and elected officials to achieve a better quality of life. Rather, such maps tend to merely adopt what is on the ground already. If an area has low-density residential development, the map will specify “single-family” for that area. If another area has offices, the map will specify “office” for that area.

That ain’t plannin.’

It is a spineless, leadership-less way of memorializing what already exists. No thought whatsoever went into an evaluation of whether certain parts of the community should evolve into a different land use pattern to achieve community quality of life objectives. Maybe once or twice in my 20 years as a town planner did my city meaningfully propose a land use that differed from what was on the ground already.

In the early years of our nation, Thomas Jefferson pointed out that a healthy democracy depends on an educated electorate. I don’t believe he wanted the direct democracy envisioned by giving citizens the right to vote on proposed developments or proposed changes to land use or zoning designations. I don’t think that direct democracy is at all workable – logistically – nor do I think it improves decision-making. Indeed, particularly when there is little citizen education, having large numbers vote inevitably dumbs down decisions when lots of uninformed people are able to vote about complex societal decisions.

Are we comfortable with the idea of dumbing down community design decisions? What sort of future can a community expect if citizens are given the such “direct democracy” power, and use it in a short-sighted way? A way that is now unduly, artificially distorted by car pampering, which leads most citizens to desire low-density sprawl and happy car travel? Won’t that lead to decisions that leave a community without a “Plan B” when faced with extreme climate change or peak oil problems? A community, in other words, without the resilience to adapt to a changing future? A community that suffers significantly because it did not plan for land use and transportation patterns that would reduce costs and provide options when the price of low-density land uses and car travel become unaffordable?

An important concern with the direct democracy of citizens voting on proposed development or proposed land use changes is the risk of driving development further out into the countryside, away from existing town centers.

As I look around the nation over the past several decades, this sort of sprawling is already happening – even without the added boost of citizens voting for more sprawl.

When I see remote subdivisions sprouting up like weeds, all I can think about is how we are paying for the ugly sins committed by our forefathers and mothers who were part of a pro-car generation. We are still embedded in that pro-car world. A world where the price of car travel is substantially hidden from us, so we drive more than we would have without such a clouding of our awareness. A world where we feel it is necessary for us to vote for nest-fouling, pro-car, pro-sprawl decisions because we are trapped in car dependency. In the end, we have become trapped in being our own worst enemies.

I am firmly convinced that representative democracy works better than direct democracy – particularly in larger, more complex societies such as ours. Most citizens do not have the time, interest, or wisdom to be sufficiently knowledgeable about community planning or transportation issues that must be decided upon.

Despite all of the above, I must admit that I have some sympathy for direct democracy applied to planning and transportation decisions to the extent that the amendment is an expression of unhappiness about the long parade of awful car-centric road projects and strip commercial sprawl developments that have occurred in American communities so frequently since the 1940s. I would have loved the opportunity to have been able to vote against the monster highway widening projects and massive shopping center developments that have been built in my community (and using public tax revenue to boot).

So in a sense, I am sympathetic to the idea of applying direct democracy to town planning. But overall, I believe the idea does more harm than good. It is a sledgehammer that wipes out the good with the (admittedly) bad.

Examples of good? Increasingly, developers and property owners are proposing high-quality, sustainable projects because there is growing evidence that compact, mixed-use development that promotes a higher quality of life, an affordable lifestyle, and transportation choice is the most profitable way to go. In part, this is due to the emerging Millennial Generation, which seeks more of a lifestyle that is based more on town center living and reduced use of car travel than previous generations. And in part, it is due to price signals and growing concerns about a sustainable future in a world where unstable energy and climate change are making a car-based lifestyle seem increasingly inadvisable.

By killing good and bad, we are left with the status quo, which is awful in so many instances (every American community is infected by unlovable, unsustainable, strip-commercial sprawl). We NEED developers and property owners to propose projects that will heal such car-happy insults to our quality of life.

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Filed under Politics, Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation, Urban Design

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