Thursday, December 30, 2004

Growth Boundaries and Norse Myths

Back in 1997, I talked my editors into sending me to Portland, Oregon, for three days, so I could write about how that city's urban growth boundary was concentrating new development within a restricted (but nonetheless large) urban area while helping to keep new strip malls and subdivisions away from farmlands and forests beyond the boundary.

In three days of interviewing and observing, I couldn't tell for sure how it was working, except that it seemed like a worthwhile experiment. Downtown Portland was lively and easy to navigate and when you got to the boundary, 20 miles or so from the center of downtown, you crossed a line beyond which there was almost no development -- or rather, beyond which the land was developed as farms.

Malcolm Gladwell, the most interesting writer now working for the New Yorker, mentions the urban growth boundaries, which apply to all the state's cities, in the current issue: "The laws meant that Oregon has done perhaps the best job in the nation in limiting suburban sprawl, and protecting coastal lands and estuaries."

And yet on Election Day 2004, Oregon residents voted 60 percent to 40 percent for a ballot proposition, called Measure 37, that would require the state to pay landowners whose property values were hurt by the urban growth boundaries.

In other words, the boundaries are protecting the environment, but the state will have to compensate landowners whose property drops in value because of them.

"Measure 37 said that anyone who could show that the value of his land was affected by regulations implemented since its purchase was entitled to compensation from the state. If the state declined to pay, the property owner would be exempted from the regulations."
Gladwell argues that Oregon voters voted against their own interests.

"To call Measure 37—and similar referendums that have been passed recently in other states—intellectually incoherent is to put it mildly. It might be that the reason your hundred-acre farm on a pristine hillside is worth millions to a developer is that it’s on a pristine hillside: if everyone on that hillside could subdivide, and sell out to Target and Wal-Mart, then nobody’s plot would be worth millions anymore. Will the voters of Oregon then pass Measure 38, allowing them to sue the state for compensation over damage to property values caused by Measure 37?"

The context in which Gladwell discusses Oregon is a review of a new book, Collapse, by Jared Diamond. Diamond's thesis seems to be that societies are doomed if they fail to account for environmental realities. One example Gladwell cites from the book is the Norse, who built a beautifully-functioning, European settlement on Greenland a thousand years ago, only to see its residents die of starvation 400 years later because they failed to see that Greenland, with its thin topsoil, was different from the relatively mild and fertile southern part of Norway.

In both cases, people knew what was in their own best interests and yet they chose a different path. Gladwell's essay is worth reading, and my guess is that Diamond's book is too.

(However one example that Gladwell takes from Diamond's book is no longer viable, I can assure you. He writes that Norse settlers, having become culturally accustomed to eating beef, apparently refused to eat fish on Greenland, even though their survival depended on it. Based on the redolent fish that was constantly being cooked in the house shared by my Norwegian grandfather, Olaf, and his bachelor uncle, Halfdan, in the 1960s and '70s, I can vouch that this cultural taboo had been overcome 600 years after the collapse of the Greenland colony.)

A couple of final notes. There is some interesting discussion of the fish-eating question at Matthew Yglesias's blog. And another blog, called Winterspeak, muddles the Oregon issue by confusing it with regulatory takings -- government actions or regulations that render your property valueless and which, under the Fifth Amendment, require government compensation.
"A taking is a taking is a taking," writes Winterspeak. Of course it's not that simple. Lots of government regulations -- wetlands law, for example -- limit your potential to maximize profit from your land. Others -- four-acre zoning, say, which limits the supply of land -- increase your land values. He should have checked out the Cato Institute, which deplores government regulations as a matter of philosophy, and which explains regulatory takings fairly clearly.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

As you read Jared Diamond the author of Guns, Germs and Steel, keep in mind the diversity of his positions, such as his published work in Nature on ethnic differences in testis size.

6:46 PM  

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