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Federal "no growth" blueprint is unrealistic

By Nancie G. Marzulla
web posted December 3, 2001

Secretary Mel Martinez

When Secretary Mel Martinez took over the reins as the newly installed head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), he had little reason to suspect that in addition to heading up the nation's housing policies, he would also be handed the dubious distinction of being asked to unleash a 2,000 page blueprint for controlling every aspect of local land use across America from a "Directorate" located in Washington, D.C. Unless Secretary Martinez acts to stop it, in the next few days, what is benignly dubbed the "Legislative Guidebook" will be jointly issued by HUD and the American Planning Association (APA). The Guidebook is a comprehensive blueprint of model statutes and planning guidelines whose goal is nothing less than a centralization of land planning for state and local governments and elimination of the need for messy and "inefficient" local land use control.

The Legislative Guidebook is the brainchild of an insular group of no-growth activists who found fertile soil for their anti-growth agenda at HUD during the Clinton administration. Flush with over $1.7 million in HUD grant money, these activists (with the knowledge and input of only a select few) spent seven years crafting the Guidebook.

Between July 1994 and June 2001, under the leadership of the HUD-APA "Directorate," the HUD-APA project went through eleven amendments, and expanded in nature and scope to the voluminous size near-two thousand page document it is today, filled with generic rhetoric that masks its true radical intent to federalize local government control and eviscerate constitutionally protected private property rights. The general public, as well as minority business owners and small business owners, farmers, and virtually everyone affected by the Guidelines, were excluded from the process.

Not surprisingly then, the results of this exclusionary process is a product which is anti-business and anti-private property rights. Many provisions in the Guidebook will statutorily take private property rights without just compensation. One small example of the detailed level of control embodied in the Guidebook is its treatment of ordinary, commercial signs, which virtually every small business and restaurant has. After prescribing uniform size, shape, and color standards by which every sign is required to look alike, the Guidebook recommends an "amortization" plan, which will give small business owners a limited period to enjoy their identical signs before they must be removed altogether, without payment of just compensation as required by the Constitution.

In contrast to its detailed level of minutiae, the Guidebook can also be characterized by the sweeping breadth of the land use planning issues it attempts to uniformly regulate, including: affordable housing, transportation, urban growth, neighborhood planning, economic development, public services, state facilities, taxes, zoning and subdivision, environmental policy, historic preservation, telecommunications and information technology, among others.

To encourage everyone from State legislatures to town councils to adopt these uniform standards, the same no-growth activists have convinced some Congressmen to introduce legislation, the Community Character Act (SB 975) and its House counterpart (HB 1433), which would authorize a grant program to the tune of $250 million over ten years , earmarked for state and tribal governments whose land use planning activities are consistent with the terms and conditions embedded in the Legislative Guidebook.

Adoption of these no-growth laws has proved very expensive for local residents and homeowners. For example, Portland, Oregon, a model for the "smart growth" initiative, has gone from being one of the nation's most affordable cities to one of the least affordable. Moreover, because the Guidebook's proposals will restrict where people can live, it will help ensure not only that there is no affordable housing, but no housing at all.

The Guidebook has been slammed by Representative Richard Pombo, head of the Congressional Western Caucus, who stated: "The Legislative Guidebook is a backdoor attempt to squash the rights of private property owners. We must make sure that we respect the ownership rights of others."

Federal regulations already control far too many aspects of our lives, and land use decisions too. Hopefully, Secretary Martinez will act to stop the uncontrolled growth of even more federal hegemony.

Nancie G. Marzulla is President of the Washington, D.C. based Defenders of Property Rights.

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