Planning and Politics


For several reasons, planning generally takes place in a highly politicized environment.

  • 1. Planning often involves matters in which people have large emotional stakes—for example, the character of a neighborhood or the quality of a school district. A planning decision that you do not like may intrude itself into your life every day because its fruits are located where you live or work. The often very emotional suburban resistance to subsidized housing is largely a matter of residents' fears about the effect it will have on the local school system. The residents may be right or wrong, but either way it is easy to understand why they become passionate about what they think will affect the happiness and safety of their children. Vociferous citizens' opposition was the major force that ended Urban Renewal (see Chapter 12). Few actions of government can arouse more emotion than a program that might force the citizen to give up an apartment or relocate his or her business to make way for what one writer called "the federal bulldozer."
  • 2. Planning decisions are visible. They involve buildings, roads, parkland, properties—entities which citizens see and know about. Planning mistakes, like architectural mistakes, are hard to hide.
  • 3. Like all functions of local government, the planning process is close at hand. It is easier for the citizen to affect the actions of a town board or a city council than the actions of a state legislature or of Congress. That feeling of potential effectiveness encourages participation.
  • 4. Citizens correctly assume that they know something about planning without having studied it formally. Planning involves land use, traffic, the character of the community, and other items with which they are familiar. Therefore, citizens tend not to defer to planners.
  • 5. Planning involves decisions with large financial consequences. Mr. X owns 100 acres of farmland on the urban fringe. Land values in the area are rising, and it is clear that the land will soon pass from agricultural to a more intensive use. If municipal sewer and water lines are extended along the road fronting the property, the land will be suitable for garden apartment development at 12 units per acre, making it worth, say, $100,000 per acre. On the other hand, if the land is not served with utilities, development there will be limited to single-family houses on one-acre lots, and land will be worth $10,000 per acre. Mr. X now has a $9 million interest in whether the municipal master plan shows sewer and water lines down a particular road. Variations on this theme could easily be posed in terms of zoning, street widening, community development, construction of public buildings, flood control measures, and the like.

Even those who own no property other than the house they live in may feel, quite correctly, that they have a substantial financial stake in planning decisions. For many people, their biggest single source of net worth is not in bank accounts or stock certificates but in home equity (what the home would bring when sold minus what is owed on it). Planning decisions that affect house values may thus assume major importance to homeowners.

6. There can be a strong link between planning questions and property taxes. The property tax is one of the financial mainstays of local government as well as of public education. Planning decisions that affect what is built within a community affect the community's tax base. This affects the property taxes that community residents must pay, and these taxes are hardly a trivial sum. In 2013 total property tax collections in the United States were approximately $488 billion, or a little over $1,500 per capita. Concern over property tax levels has been very great for many years. Witness Proposition 13 in California and comparable property tax limits in a number of other states.

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