It Takes a Village to Raise a StinkThere has been a flurry of discussion lately in the papers about Binx Selby's Sierra Village proposal -- Selby proposes to build an experimental "spiritual" community in Fourmile Canyon that would be high density but have relatively low environmental and infrastructure impacts.
The other side of the story is a group called RAID -- Residents Against Inappropriate Development. Selby's neighbors are claiming that the community won't be as low-impact as claimed -- that it will have significant detrimental impacts on them, and that his mitigating measures (busses, water conservation measures, innovative construction techniques, etc.) are just P.R. gestures that won't repair the damage inherently done by the degree of development he proposes.
I think this is a textbook case of what's wrong with the traditional model of zoning. On one hand Selby has an interesting and innovative plan he wants to persue, but the process he has to go through for approval is a contentious quagmire of competing interests. On the other hand, RAID has genuine concerns about their own property rights being protected, and no confidence that the political process will leave their rights intact.
The problem, in my opinion, stems from the fact that zoning laws, and the process of allowing variances from them, deal with what happens on a piece of property, rather than what impacts flow off the property onto the neighbors' property. For example, rather than setting quantitative limits on noise, traffic, and water use for development, the law limits square footage or number of people, as an indirect way of limiting impact.
For normal housing, that wouldn't make much difference. But as soon as someone wants to try something different, the rules no longer relate so closely to the real impacts on neighbors. If Selby can somehow get 100 people to live in a small area without making a lot of noise, turning the road into a freeway, or depleting everyone else's water supplies, he should be allowed to do it. But the current laws either forbid him from trying (not fair to him), or, if a variance is given, allow him to damage his neighbors' property if his mitigation efforts don't work as well as expected (not fair to the neighbors).
Somehow -- through a private contract, or a new form of zoning -- Selby ought to be allowed to go ahead with his development if he can come to a "fair" agreement with the neighbors about what quantifiable impacts would be considered damage to their properties. Such a contract could specify penalties -- maybe ranging from fines paid to the neighbors, all the way to eviction from the property and restoration to its natural state.
I put "fair" in quotes above because that's the sticking point -- the reason we need a publically accepted standard of what exactly someone's property rights are -- a matter that zoning glosses over by trying to control these impacts in an indirect and arbitrary way
If laws focussed on the use of force -- whether that meant slugging someone in the stomach or depleting their share of an aquifer -- it would allow developers like Selby as much innovation as possible without hurting his neighbors; and it would allow RAID as much security as possible from Selby's possible mistakes. But instead we have laws that limit people to a few standard choices of how to build their homes, and how to live their lives -- all in the name of making planning easier for bureaucrats. Nobody wins except those who dislike innovation.