Tuesday, August 08, 2006

How can you tell if Smart Growth becomes Stupid?

So the Evansville Smart Growth Plan faces its first real challenge fourteen months after it was put into place. Upon the Plan Commission's recommendation, the City council will be holding a public hearing tonight on whether to amend the plan to redesignate 47 acres from Undeveloped/Agriculture to Future Residential. Although this does not by itself accelerate Evansville's growth beyond the 27% over 20 year goal stated by the plan, it opens the bureaucratic gates for doing so.

Once a city's plan designates an area as appropriate for future development (residential, commercial, industrial, etc), developers have a green light for their business planning. The argument at that point becomes not "if" but "when?"

During my years on Council and Plan Commission, I was periodically chastised by developers for not understanding their perspective and business point of view. So rather than simply rehash the fine comments already given by Grumps and The Observer, I thought I would try and explain this process and the implications from the developer's point of reference.

A developer looking at property outside the city will first look to the city's Master Plan or Smart Growth Plan to see if they have a shot in hell at getting an annexation and approved land division from the City. The Plan represents the City's philosophical "line in the sand" for not what will happen but rather what ideas of development the City is willing to entertain.

A developer knows that the first step is for the Plan to show the land as future development - regardless of the planned use. Any land shown as future development means that 1. the city has expressed interest in future annexation and 2. the township that currently governs the land is aware of that interest. Thus future use lands are less controversial for the developer since the debate between city and township were likely resolved or exhausted during the Plan process.

For example -- the Brunsell property on the south side of Hwy 14 (across from the Piggly Wiggly) has been designated as future land use for nearly two decades. When it was originally added to the Master Plan in the mid 1980s, it was designated as future Industrial. From that point onward, the Town of Union accepted the fact that the land was Agriculture - 1 on borrowed time. When the Master Plan was updated to change part of the land to future Commercial, the Town of Union didn't bat an eye - they had already written off the property as future city land.

Once the land has been designated as future use, there is no going back. You are now in the competetive phase of development -- the competition between the Plan (27% over 20 years) versus the Market (the developer's business plan). This competition almost always favors the developer even though the city appears to have all the control.

At this point the developer will begin spending cash on the project. Surveys, soil testing, engineering studies, environmental impact, marketing studies, real estate surveying, etc. Thousands of dollars will be invested by the developer in putting together their comprehensive plan for development. This is where the city typically goes weak in the spine - the developer will cry out about the money invested and how the Plan supports the development, how could the city possibly say no at this point? Every "delay" that the city "causes" equals more dollars spent and lost by the developer.

What the developer will leave out of the conversation is that these preliminary costs are also necessary to their loan or satisfy their investors -- not just to convince the city. They have to spend this money up front regardless of the city's wishes.

The developer will likely argue that simply updating the Plan to include 47 acres as future land designated for development does not equal immediate growth. However, they wouldn't push the issue on to Plan Commission's agenda if they didn't have near future plans - why go through the headache? If the idea is floated during the Smart Growth Planning process, then it may well be just a concept for consideration. If the idea is pushed forward only a year after the Plan has been implemented, then the developer has a short-frame timeline already in mind.

So the question comes to the City Council -- do you wish to have this 47 acres on your agenda for the next year or two, first as an annexation request, then as a formal land division. Because, in spite of what Mr. Morning might say tonight, that is what this really means.

Oh, and do you think maybe you should ask the Town of Union how they feel about 47 acres of land that they thought safe from development over the next 20 years now being on the annexation table?


At 11:08 PM, Blogger grumps said...

After a calm but adamant public hearing in which 11 citizens spoke against the change the Council discussed for another 20 minutes before voting 8-0 to not change the Interim Map.


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