Guest editorial: An open letter to Albemarle County and Charlottesville City Planning Commissions
By Charles Battig, MD
With both an engineering and medical background, my views are science and validated-results based. They are more oriented with F. A. Hayek and “The Fatal Conceit,” than with American Planning Association dogma.
None of my comments are intended to disparage the conscientious efforts of those who have been fulfilling their duties in conducting the various studies being presented to you tonight. My focus is on the factual results rather than on motives or good intentions. Such a focus might give a false impression of my not being considerate or caring, just the opposite is the truth.
According to the official “oneCommunities” website, the “Livability Project” (your agenda item #1), is funded by a U.S. HUD $999,000 grant. The October 14, 2010 letter from HUD to Mr. Stephen Williams in announcing the grant award made reference to the title of his application, “Sustainable Communities Regional Grant Planning Program.” Subsequently, an unexplained metamorphosis took place which transformed the project title into a “livability” project, and the term “sustainability” was scarcely to be found thereafter. What is the definition of “livability” for this project? If it exits, I cannot find it.
From that same website, I have copied one item from the 1998 Sustainability Accords (implementation of which is an objective of the grant):
3. To maintain a population composition that does not reduce the sustainability of the Region.
To be measured by the distribution of population according to age, race/ethnicity, income/personal wealth, education, and employment status.
In looking around the room at the people making up these commissions, I see at least one visible measurement feature not yet achieved from this 1998 guiding goal.
Mr. Williams in his opening remarks tonight claimed that the City, County, and University are considered as one entity by the public. The public does not seem to agree, as documented by his own TJPDC livability group survey on jobs and housing preferences. As reported in the February 15, 2012 Charlottesville-Tomorrow: “most of the 508 respondents said that they would prefer to live in the rural areas of Albemarle County if there were no barriers in choice of housing. Sixty-one percent said they commuted from outside the Charlottesville Albemarle area because they found housing elsewhere more affordable or a better value.”
The article continues: “…commuters continue to have a preference for larger houses on large lots in nearby counties…if expense were not a barrier, many of these commuters would prefer to live in Albemarle’s rural areas.”
This same article noted that Mr. Wayne Cilimberg found that “it is too easy to live in the rural area and drive to work.” Albemarle County staff found this a “thorn in our flesh.”
From the citizen taxpayer’s point of view, it appears that “livability” is whatever the planners want it to be, even if it means forcing the round pegs of private citizen choice into the square-hole utopian notions of planners. Instead of working to accommodate the expressed wishes of the public, the planners complain that the public does not know what is best for them.
The historical record of planning gives little reason to be optimistic about any attempts to define, measure, and regulate this undefined “livability.” Your own comments here tonight illustrate that fact. There were calls to have more committee meetings to get your stories straight before the next joint planning meeting. The livability surveys are inherently flawed because any survey is limited to the chosen indicators. What is the correct number of indicators? Are all indicators of equal value? Who decides? Why feature questions on bike paths and not questions related to better or more paved roads? How do you quantify the worth of an indicator? What indicators are unknown, yet vital?
Would a different group pick and weigh different indicators? Whose biases get to shape the wording of the questions? Who does not know that the phrasing of a question largely determines the answer? Who decides how large a sample group must be? Who decides the composition of that sample?
In the end, the result is largely pre-determined by the original crafters of the survey process, and the choices they offered the public.
You commissioners were quick to notice and question the issue of survey sample size and composition. For all the effort to engage the public to vote their opinions on the packaged survey questions, the livability team could point to only 350 or so individuals, scattered over the several survey topics, who had signed in to partake in the surveys. They had failed to cross reference the names and could not answer your question: “Are these the same people voting each time or not? Is it the same core group of activists voting each time? At some of the public voting displays only 20 or 30 people showed up. The County/City population is around 120,000. This cannot be considered a valid representation of public opinion. The HUD grant demands that the livability project go through this public participation process, but to say that at the end that “the public wants this or that” based on the results so far is not valid or meaningful.
None of the Livability surveys included linking “cost” to the desirability of a measure. If the survey had included: “How much more in taxes would you pay for measure “x,” then the results might be meaningful. So long as the wish list is “free” why not have more of everything deemed desirable. You will get a diversity of choices limited only by the number of people responding. Livability for some might include a free flat panel TV, why not?
None of the Livability surveys included “private property rights” as a limiting factor or “indicator” in the choices offered. An expert on governmental planning, Randal O’Toole, has noted that “planners believe that private property rights are flexible and can be changed at whim.” He quotes from the APA book “The Land We Share,” that private property is an “institution that communities reshape over time to promote evolving goals,” and comments that “if guided by planners, the government decides that your property has historic, environmental, or scenic value, they can take from you the right to use your land without any composition.” Do you agree with this?
On the topic of transportation, Mr. O’Toole notes that “more than four out of five Americans say they prefer a house in the suburbs to higher-density housing near jobs, shops, and transit. (This true here as noted already in the TJPDC Livability study.) But planners believe a greater share of Americans should live in high-density housing, partly because planners erroneously think people living in higher densities will drive less.” He notes that “Germany can’t tear them (high-density housing) down fast enough to keep up with people leaving for single-family homes.”
The presentations this evening spent much time on affordable housing. What is the definition of “affordable housing”? What determined the arbitrary percent level goal for 2050? How much is the right amount and for whom? I heard no mention of making housing affordable. In City/County discussions of new jobs, such jobs are always carefully qualified as being “environmentally friendly, high-tech, high-paying, clean.” This proviso filters out the real jobs that the real unemployed might be qualified to do in more basic manufacturing. The large numbers of unemployed for whom housing is unaffordable do not have the educational skills for such utopian industries. This cherry picking of acceptable industry/jobs puts the disadvantaged in a perpetual dependency role rather than into a job.
One example of advocacy guiding public policy was illustrated by the comments regarding accommodations by the City to bicycling groups. The spokesperson for the City noted the need for basic infrastructure upgrades. How odd then that C-T reports that “The city’s budget director, Leslie Beauregard, said $100,000 of the capital budget was moved from undergrounding utilities into bicycle infrastructure development.”
Much “livability” talk also concerns the achieving of the right mix of housing stock and individuals. The April 17, 2012 article by Thomas Sowell discussed this very topic. He notes, “…in order to mix and match classes and races to fit the government’s preconceptions…is the idea that there is something wrong if a community does not have an even or random distribution of various kinds of people. This arbitrary assumption is that the absence of evenness or randomness — whether in employment, housing or many other situations — shows a “problem” that has to be “corrected.”
No evidence is considered necessary for this assumption to prevail at any level of government, including the US Supreme Court. No one has to show the existence, much less the prevalence, of an even or random distribution of different segments of the population — in any country, anywhere. Nothing is more common than for people to sort themselves out when it comes to residential housing, whether by class, race or other factors.”
In reference to politicians and bureaucrats, Sowell concludes with, “People convinced of their own superior wisdom and virtue have no time to spare for what other people really want.”
The article by Wendell Cox in the WSJ April 9, 2012 “California Declares War on Suburbia” confirms the experiences in other states regarding planning edicts. He notes that “The campaign against suburbia is the result of laws passed in 2006 (the Global Warming Solutions Act) to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and in 2008 (the Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act) on urban planning. The latter law, as the Los Angeles Times aptly characterized it, was intended to “control suburban sprawl, build homes closer to downtown and reduce commuter driving, thus decreasing climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions.” In short, to discourage automobile use.”
Further, “Dartmouth economist William Fischel found that California’s housing had been nearly as affordable as the rest of the nation until the more restrictive regulations, such as development moratoria, urban growth boundaries, and overly expensive impact fees came into effect starting in the 1970s. Other economic studies, such as by Stephen Malpezzi at the University of Wisconsin, also have documented the strong relationship between more intense land-use regulations and exorbitant house prices.”
There was discussion during the meeting concerning housing prices and their statistical distribution in the City/County and land use/density. Are you bemoaning County regulations requiring 21 acre minimums for land divisions, with the restriction of only one home on one acre of that 21 acres? Do you not realize that the more restrictive land use laws become, the more expensive the land and homes become? The number of people who chose to move and live outside the City or County because of increased housing costs is testimony to this. Such planning choices make City and County living appear to be more of an elitist achievement.
At the recent London conference “Planet Under Pressure,” Yale University professor Karen Seto was quoted in MSMBC, “We certainly don’t want them (humans) strolling about the entire countryside. We want them to save land for nature by living closely (together).”
Commissioners, it appears that there is a schism between the elite notions of the university planners and the wants and actions of the public. You have the unenviable job of reconciling your good intentions with history and human diversity.
Corbusier tried in the 1930s with his “Radiant Cities” project; Jane Jacobs did a bit better; Chicago tried with the best planning talent in the 1950s and 1960s only to have these edifices later demolished.
In conclusion, I return to F. A. Hayek’s “Fatal Conceit.” Ralph Reiland’s 2009 definition of that term conveys the message, “that one man or one group, one cabinet of commanding officials or one central committee, or one team of planners from Harvard and Yale, can gather and understand enough information in order to reshape the world around them according to their wishes, reshape human nature…”
(Note: These remarks were delivered to a joint session of the Albemarle County and Charlottesville City Planning Commissions on April 18, 2012.)