I just returned from the People's Republic of China and want to share a lesson I learned about land use planning. For three decades, the Chinese communists used their totalitarian power trying to perfect the most centralized economic,
social and land use planning system in modern history. Given the historical
plight of the Chinese peasants, it can be argued that this was done with the
best of intentions.
However, with the death of Mao Tse-tung in 1976, the new communist regime began
to publicly admit that the usefulness of centralized planning had come and gone.
They realized that, although they had some national success using this approach,
they could not compete internationally against the more efficient decentralized
free market system. Indeed their early success was their undoing. The now well-educated
and well-fed Chinese people were tiring of the government telling them what
they could not buy or do. In the new information age of cell phones, satellite
disks and Internet access it was impossible to hide the bounty and freedom of
the new global economy.
The important lesson, for those of us involved in making land use planning
policy, is that the more centralized the land use planning system, the more
dysfunctional it may become. Bigger is not always better. This is especially
true for large scale planning areas - like states - where mandated land use
planning often proscribes a "one size fits all" planning regime that
can preempt local planning authority and workable local solutions. State-mandated
land use planning often ignores the major geographic differences in geomorphology,
land economics, historical development patterns and cultural beliefs of specific
Then why do it? The reason is that a larger planning area - like a state -
is a political convenience for special interest groups. Unfortunately, the individual
citizen's role is diminished because it is no longer local.
Nowhere is the promise and the reality of state-mandated land use planning
more contrasted than in the Pacific Northwest states of Oregon and Washington.
Each has taken a dramatically different policy approach in its implementation.
After 26 years, Oregon has developed the most centralized planning program
in America. In the 1970s, Oregon experienced rapid population growth from in-migration.
To address this problem, a bipartisan state legislature and a progressive Republican
governor, named Tom McCall, delegated powerful administrative rulemaking authority
to a single autonomous state agency governed by an independent commission.
However, many of the elected officials who created the agency did not fully
understand the unanticipated consequence of 16 years of the Oregon voters electing
self-proclaimed environmentalists to the Governor's Office. The governor controls
the appointments to the commission and can veto all legislative attempts to
limit the agency's power. This has resulted in the unchecked policy expansion
of a quasi-legislative body that is only accountable to one person.
There are only two viable constitutional venues left to Oregon voters who want
to limit the agency's authority - the initiative process and the courts. In
the year 2000 election, Oregonians passed a nationally unprecedented statewide
ballot measure that greatly expanded the compensation allowed for property takings
- even beyond that allowed by the U.S. Supreme Court. This was a vote against
the heavy-handed and often indifferent actions of many Oregon cities, counties
and regional planning agencies that had used mass down zonings and exactions
from property owners in the name of "livability."
The ballot measure was foreshadowed by the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case
on property takings that originated in Oregon (Dolan v. City of Tigard). The
city of Tigard, like many other Oregon jurisdictions, accepted the statewide
planning philosophy that there was no such thing as an unreasonable exaction
from a land use permit applicant. In this case, the city demanded a bike path
dedication in exchange for approving improvements to an existing plumbing store.
The U.S. Supreme Court rejected this practice and held that any exaction must
be "roughly proportional" to the actual public need. In other words,
the court found it improbable that a citizen would buy a water heater or a toilet,
and take it home on the back of their bicycle.
The state of Washington passed its Growth Management Act 10 years ago, but
it provides for more local control. First, it only required fast growing urban
counties to comply with the act. Second, the state did not create an autonomous
bureaucracy to promulgate and enforce legally binding "goals" and
administrative rules. Instead they created three regional geographic hearing
boards whose job it is to review local land use decisions based on local conditions.
This has resulted in some inconsistent decisions, but these are being resolved
by the Washington courts.
The latter is important in Washington because the state Supreme Court is elected by voters who favor a more populous approach in its decision-making. By taking the Washington approach, the legislature and the courts have kept tight control over their public policy role and not delegated it away to some unaccountable and untouchable bureaucracy. In Oregon, the state Supreme Court is elected by the same urban environmental ist voters who elect the governor. This has resulted in a court that is more likely to invalidate the will of the voters on property rights issues.
It is ironic that in the mid-1970s communist China started to curtail centralized
planning and that at the same time Oregon began to embrace it. The Chinese lesson
for the Pacific Northwest is clear. There is a limit to the amount of centralized
planning that the people of a place will tolerate.
Richard H. Carson is a writer
and planner who lives in the Pacific Northwest. He was the editor of the "Oregon
Planners Journal" and an elected official of the American Planning Association
(APA). He maintains APA's "Internet
Planning Media" and the independent "Planning
Utopia" Internet websites. Rich was in Hong Kong, Nanning and Guangzhou
in the People's Republic of China from June 14 to June 28, 2001.