January 9, 2007
For the second year in a row, Saint Consulting Group, a land-use political consultancy, has issued its Saint Index, a phone survey of 1,000 randomly chosen respondents across the U.S. The survey aims to evaluate the political climate surrounding land use, and even at this early stage, researchers have confirmed the perception that Americans dig in their heels against development. In 2006, 73 percent of those surveyed opposed new development in their communities and 93 percent of respondents concurred that a candidate’s position on new development and growth is an important consideration in voting, exactly the same figures tallied the previous year.
While the survey reports its results on a national scale, Robert Puentes, a fellow with the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institute, notes that popular attitudes toward land use vary widely by region, contingent upon local factors like economics and immigration: Traditionally, the South and West are most accommodating to development, while the East and the Midwest are more exclusionary. But the particularly high level of frustration recorded by the Saint Index may reflect widespread misunderstanding of the development process. “The best laid plans are doomed to failure if there is not political support from elected officials and if they don't reflect an understanding of the realities of the marketplace,” Puentes explains.
Elected officials have shied away from the responsibility of educating voters, according to Patrick Fox, president of Saint Consulting. “Politicians used to love development projects. They could boast that they got the new mall or grocery store built, and that the new jobs and tax dollars to benefit their constituents were the result of their hard work. Those days are nearly gone.” And even though Fox says that politicians find it’s more expeditious to oppose new development nowadays, 75 percent of Saint Index respondents still gave local officials a C grade or lower concerning how they refereed new development within their communities. That same proportion said the relationship between elected officials and developers makes the permitting process unfair.
Paul Mendelsohn, vice president of government and community relations at the AIA, notes, “ultimately, people don’t want elected officials to bring things in that won’t increase quality of life and beauty.” Indeed, 87 percent of interviewees oppose landfills in their communities. Puentes adds, “People care deeply about their neighborhoods and they react strongly to the biggest investment they’ll ever make in their lives—their homes.”
Observers also agree that in 2006, the Kelo case cast a shadow on land planning. The 5-4 Supreme Court decision upheld the city of New London, Connecticut, in its decision to seize privately help property in order to use in a comprehensive redevelopment plan. The judgment maintained that the benefits of economic growth rendered such plans as a permissible public use under the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment. In concert with the longstanding threat of suburban sprawl’s suffocating tentacles, Kelo only bolstered the NIMBY mood of the Saint Index.