Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Philosophy of Planning & Zoning

When I was younger, I found grand ideas and principles mesmerizing. The older I have become, the more I have seen that grand ideas and principles can often be very useful models, but the complexity of the real world and the variability of human abilities and foibles often means that a strict adherence to ideas--any ideas--can lead to silly or destructive results.

Land use, planning, zoning is one such example. As a grand idea, I don't think there should be restrictions on how you use your land, except those that you voluntarily accept as part of deed restrictions. If there is a problem of external effects (pollution, traffic, noise), well, injured parties should file suit against the polluter. If someone can figure out how to operate a slaughterhouse in a residential neighborhood without smells, noise, offal, then why should anyone care?

I can imagine a way that this could work--with underground tunnels bringing in cattle and sending out steaks, big air filtration systems to deal with the smells, lots of sound insulation, and little nuclear reactor in the basement to power everything. If this sounds like something out of L. Neil Smith's The Probability Broach (1981), now available online as a graphic novel--well, that's my point. Lots of things are possible in a science fiction novel, but the real world tends to be a bit more difficult.

In practice, the external effects are sometimes so horrendous that damages after the fact can't compensate for the injuries. For example, if a lead smelting operation pollutes the ground water and air, causing birth defects in dozens of kids. Yes, you can buy the silence of the families, but the damage done to those kids is permanent, and unrepairable.

Sometimes the external effects are so minor from any single property owner that it simply does not make sense to file suit. How much air pollution does a single property owner burning trash upwind from you make? Not much--and it is impractical to file suit against that one owner. But if thousands are doing so, the cumulative effect is quite destructive--but the cost of filing suit against thousands of trash burners--especially when you can't identify each and every one of them--just makes this an absurd exercise.

When I was younger, most of what I saw of planning and zoning was in the Los Angeles basin--where the level of detail and control being exerted made libertarian ideas about this quite attractive. Since I moved to Idaho, what I have generally seen of the planning process is a lot of people making genuine attempts to resolve real world problems. You might have a philosophical objection to the process, but questions of traffic flow, blocking of sunlight, adequate parking within a development--I just haven't seen a lot of completely absurd concerns or solutions for most development proposals up here. As long as we are discussing relatively unemotional matters such as traffic, noise, property values, you can get have a polite and reasonably intelligent conversation.

But when it comes to personal safety--the NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard) goes ballistic. As I've mentioned with respect to Booth House, a homeless family shelter in Boise, and this recent situation near Idaho City with Alamar Ranch, there's a lot of fear--and intelligent conversation seems to stop.

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