At odds over how, when, and where to build homes.

By Roberta Maynard

Whether or not Congress enacts the pending Community Character legislation this year, one thing is certain: We haven?t heard the end of the sprawl issue. Municipalities are buying acres in record numbers to earmark for preservation, and individuals are increasingly vocal about new subdivisions? toll on trees and roads. Since 1998, voters have passed 529 referenda, supporting more than $19 million in open space funding. It?s happened in DeKalb County, Ga.; Morris County, N.J.; Santa Clara, Calif.; and in most places where new construction has become controversial. Last year, the voting public approved 137 of the 196 local and state ballot measures.

Meanwhile, new information keeps flaming the fire. A recent news story, for example, reported that the sedentary lifestyle ostensibly caused by a vehicle-oriented environment has yielded a generation of overweight kids in California.

With all this going on, it?s not surprising that the Community Character Act, which failed last year, was re-introduced in the current session. The pending bill, sponsored by Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, would set up HUD grants of $25 million yearly for five years that states could apply for. To get the funds, states would have to attack outdated land-use legislation, facilitate regional planning efforts, and protect the environment as well as economic development.

Although most Americans say they want development to take a different turn, no one seems to like anyone else?s solutions for bringing about change. That includes consumers, who say (at least in NAHB surveys) that their preference is for larger, yet less expensive homes. If that doesn?t mean outlying suburban subdivisions, I don?t know what does.

The NAHB came out against the Community Character legislation, claiming that such a law would let the federal government dictate land use to local communities, that it would set ?dangerous precedents,? and that it would give cabinet members the power to usurp local governments? authority. Not surprisingly, the association hailed HUD?s public denouncement of the measures in mid-April.

Lining up on the other side of the fence are the American Planning Association APA), the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), and several environmental groups. The ASLA argues that the voluntary program ?recognizes that land use planning should not stop at arbitrary jurisdictional boundaries.? The APA says that outdated state planning models have contributed to increased infrastructure costs and environmental degradation.

While the opponents battle it out on Capitol Hill, developers and builders continue to face slower permitting and negative public opinion. Consumers blame builders for sprawl. But has the building community offered an alternate solution? I wonder how long builders can say no to new proposals, expecting instead a return to the old days, which will never come.

Roberta Maynard



Published in BIG BUILDER Magazine, June 2002