Privatization: The Future of Regional Planning

Can property owners succeed where regional planners have failed? David Renkert argues that private property owners are in the best position to create, implement, and manage land use regionally, which could evolve the role of planners into liaisons between empowered property owners and the greater public.

 David Renkert

Regional plans have basic flaws that prevent successful implementation. In most states, plans have little to no legal force, they can be relatively easily changed, and they must be implemented parcel-by-parcel, project-by-project. Add on top of that the fact that these plans, whose lifespan could be measured in decades, are supposed to weather political change and roller coaster funding cycles, and you can be nearly assured of their failure.

When was the last time you saw a property owner involved in a planning meeting that didn't specifically address the owner and the owner's property? The public, property owners in particular, have grown apathetic to planning. They know that a few years down the road "something" will change and any decision made today will simply be decided again later.

The lack of certainty and predictability regional plans offer is driving many property owners to find their own solutions. People today are educated and empowered as never before. Anyone with internet access can find and communicate information about issues that affect them. Satellite imagery and simple GIS capabilities are now available to nearly everyone with the ability to push a button.

In suburban Washington, D.C., property owners are forming groups to sell en masse to developers attracted to redevelopment opportunities. Not far from Atlanta, property owners created their own land use plan covering over 43,000 acres. Outside of Chicago, farmers pursue specific plans together to ease acquisition of development entitlements. Landowners and land trusts around the country are working together to protect open space and critical natural habitats and resources privately.

What is bringing these people together? With the recent resurgence of private property rights interests, one would think property owners would hold out for their own self-interest, all others be damned. In the case of land conservation, development and redevelopment, however, people are realizing that parcel and political lines fragment economic and environmental opportunities. Property owners are working together to increase their properties' value and to protect the environment.

This new involvement should be strongly encouraged. The system that discourages property owner participation must be changed. Property owners are in the best position to create, implement and manage land uses regionally. In many cases, they have lived in their area for generations and witnessed first hand the changes and deeds that made their community what it is.

Planners already provide the tools and information necessary to guide property owners' decision-making. Yet the problem of poor implementation persists because, like dominoes, the decision of one property owner spills over to the next. Though farmers or ranchers may have done the best they could to care for their own land, if their neighbor's place becomes a subdivision, most will throw up their hands and hope to sell for as much as possible. Every landowner I know would like "to do the right thing", but they do not want to see someone else cash in on their good deeds.

Planners, in both rural and urban communities, need to encourage property owners to work together for conservation, development and redevelopment. Doing so will lower the costs to government while improving service, ease the burden on already overtaxed planning departments and improve the quality of our communities as a whole. Increasing the scale of projects beyond the individual parcel level will improve their attractiveness to the financial markets, opening up new sources of capital for conservation and infrastructure development.

If this shift becomes more widespread, the role of planners will evolve into a more formalized liaison between property owner groups and the greater public. Planners will be free to orchestrate large-scale plans and to keep everyone focused on and aware of the big picture. Meanwhile, our increasingly involved citizenry will pick up the day-to-day details specific to their particular project.

We have nearly a century of modern planning experience to learn from, yet urban sprawl is increasing, frustrations are rising, and the taxpayers' burden keeps growing. Whether it is called privatization or not, it is time for a change. The more involved property owners are, the better our communities will be.

David Renkert is the Founder and President of Landpool Partners, a real estate consulting and financial services firm. His work combines ecological and community-based planning with the energy of the financial markets to increase the potential and value of land and habitat conservation, rural economic development and urban redevelopment opportunities.



Property-owners as Conservationists

It is exciting to read a treatise on re-constructing the planning field.

The idea of forming "property-owner groups" of educated, conscientious landowners reminds me of an idealistic community-building NGO, City Repair. They involve neighborhood groups in planning small site improvements. This seems to me to be a similar suggestion of education and empowerment, couched as a service to property owners rather than eco-activists. That's very interesting.

I am new to the field, but I'm not sure I understand how the shift you discuss would take place. I can see where some people are more aware of what it is that planners actually do, but I would be curious as to how planners could sell this idea to the general public. Or do you suggest that property-owners will coalesce on their own accord?

David Renkert's picture

Why the shift...

Property owners are already coming together for a variety of reasons, mostly due to either personal preference (how they want their community to grow/change) or economic (economies of scale, reduced risk, securitization/liquidity).

As for how planning departments can entice property owners: One group in Utah has drafted a concept Landpooling ordinance that gives property owners incentives to unify planning of their parcels. Another planning commission in Florida recently adopted a TDR ordinance with a Landpooling component that encourages joint ventures and increases developers assumption of approval. I suggest each community use econonmic and ecological analysis to outline specific resources or opportunities. Provide graduated incentives for owners/projects that have assembled/coordinated control over a percentage of the resource or opportunity. This doesn't mean they are buying control of the resource, but they have gotten permission or options or partnered with all the property owners in that area so that a plan can be implemented with some sense of certainty and predictability over how it impacts the region. Do not provide incentives to projects that only impact a single parcel and that leave much uncertainty on the table as to future plans for the area.

I believe as property owners become better educated and as they continue to look for solutions to their unique situation, they will see working together as the best option. Landpool Partners facilitates such partnerships by providing objective analysis and working capital. We believe that to get the most value from conservation, development, and redevelopment opportunities, we need to eliminate free-riders, externalities, litigation, increase community support, etc. We can afford to place upfront investments because the value of the combined parcels (and the business that manages them) is significantly greater than the sum of the individual parcels. Our goal is to put property owners in the driver's seat so they can work directly with local planning authorities and not be subject to developers/speculators (non)interests.

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