Can Urban Growth Districts Work In North Carolina

Some areas of North Carolina have seen tremendous growth recently. And the response seems to be that the local governments are simply relying on traditional zoning schemes to place development. The problem is that zoning tends to be too weak of an instrument to control this rapid growth and still preserve the natural heritage of the state and working farmlands. Many other areas facing similar problems have turned to a "new" tool called Urban Growth Districts to both allow planned growth and prevent some of the negative consequences of sprawl. My proposition for this post is that North Carolina should begin implementing urban growth districts before the sprawl permanently ruins the state.

First, the reason that I quoted "new" above is that these laws really are not new and were used all the way back to the 1600's in England. An early American example shows both how these laws work and that the founder's of our country understood the importance of strict planning controls even though they were facing different problems: Boston had a law dating to the 1700's that required that every lot in the city limits be developed before lots outside the limit could be developed.

That basic framework still exists in the areas that have adopted Urban Growth Districts. These districts have been adopted in Oregon, Tennessee, and Washington as well as many foreign jurisdictions. I will use Oregon for an example since I am most familiar with their laws (for a primer go here).

Oregon requires each municipality to develop an urban growth district based on population and expected growth. The size is based purely on size of population and growth expectations, and the location is based on a number of factors affecting local communities. The municipalities and counties then use these boundaries to coordinate zoning, planning, and provision for services to these areas. Essentially, it is much easier to develop inside the boundaries than outside.

These programs have been a success in Oregon, where density has increased, open space has been preserved, and they have developed a renowned public transportation system. An added bonus has been that property taxes have gone down compared to the rest of the country due to the fact that cities do not have to provide services to as wide of an area.

In fact, the only criticism of the districts seems to be that it is increasing home prices. But a number of studies have shown shown that prices have not increased due to the districts but have mainly increased due to market forces instead. Furthermore, shouldn't it be a good thing that property values have risen? First, it means that citizens are making a better return on their house investment. And it shows that the area is desirable, since in basic economic terms, people are willing to spend more to live there than elsewhere. The free market types should appreciate that the market values these controls.

So I ask you whether it is time for North Carolina to start using this tool to preserve our state and to make it a better place for all of us to live.


Orange County

has had a "Rural Buffer" around Chapel Hill for many years, whch has controlled the pressures of sprawl. But many argue it has also driven up housing prices. Yes, increases in property values are good ... unless you're poor and unable to afford to live in the community or to pay taxes. Public policy related to affordability has not kept pace with advancements in planning, and that's an issue we must address.

Chapel Hill also has an "Urban Services Boundary" which has been an effective planning tool as well.

But watch out, TG. You're talking about planning here, which is the most evil thing in the world according to the Puppets at JLF. Just ask them. They much prefer stupid growth to smart growth.


Really what I would be looking for is a statewide shift to using the boundaries with resources to back it up.

And I know the JLF hates planning. But I also know that they represent only a very small minority of the population.

I like this

But I wonder if cities like Greensboro, Raleigh, and Charlotte would abide by it? It makes sense to me to start some sort of smart growth law to combat this ridiculous amount of sprawl. Espicially impact fees, I cannot believe the SC ruled them unconstituional.

North Carolina does need something to preserve its functionality and greenspace.

Be just, and fear not.

Our children need to know that some people fought back, when others collaborated.

Durham County

Durham also has adopted a UGA (Urban Growth Area). They will not extend water & sewer service outside the UGA, which blocks almost all commercial development and limits housing density. One of the main reasons was purely selfish - we had to protect our own watersheds.

Plan of attack on planning

Meanwhile there are people trying to roll back the measures that are in place. Smart Growth America had this in yesterday's newsletter:

Stealth anti-government measures drawing media fire

Six Western states now are facing ballot initiatives based on Oregon’s Measure 37, which says taxpayers must compensate landowners and would-be developers when a down-zoning or environmental rule impinges on use of their property, or the rules are waived for their parcels. In five of those states, California, Idaho, Montana, Arizona and Nevada, the “pay or waive” provisions are flying under the banner of post-Kelo eminent domain reform, Trojan Horse style. In Washington, a measure even more extreme than Oregon’s, tagged I-933, has qualified for the ballot.

Meanwhile, the New York Times last week (free registration required) illustrated the mess created by Measure 37 in an article that featured a landowner’s claim for either $203 million or the right to develop a geothermal plant, mine and subdivision in the Newberry National Volcanic Monument. While many voters believed they were approving the right of rural landowners to build houses on their land, James Miller of Portland told the Times’ Tim Egan he had bigger plans for land within the monument zone: “You could get a really good-sized geothermal plant in there,’ he said, ‘and the only thing you’d see from afar is a big cooling tower with a nice little plume.”

In the High Country News, Ray Ring chronicles how big money from out of state is being funneled into the push to get initiatives on the ballot that, if approved, would pave the way for the restriction of land-use and planning regulations. He colorfully summarizes how the measures work:

“The initiatives have titles like ‘Protect Our Homes,’ ‘The Home Owners Protection Effort’ and ‘People’s Initiative to Stop the Taking of Our Land’ — as if the government is about to come in with bulldozers to sweep everyone off their property,” writes Ring in the High Country News piece. “But here’s how the initiatives would work: If you could fit 20 houses on your land, plus a junkyard, a gravel mine, and a lemonade stand, and the government limits you to six houses and lemonade, then the government would have to pay you whatever profit you would have made on the unbuilt 14 houses, junkyard and mine. Generally, if the government can’t or won’t pay you, then it would have to drop the regulations.”

Coming soon to NC

The Stupid Growth advocates at JLF are all over property rights legislation like this ... one of many reasons why the Puppetmaster must be stopped in his bloody tracks.