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Zoning can enhance rural Iowa

Des Moines Register
Saturday, Aug. 28, 2004

By Thomas Hylton

In 2001, I gave a short talk on land-use planning and community building to the nation's governors at their annual conference in Washington. Afterward, the first questioner was Gov. Tom Vilsack.

"I come from a state that has quite a bit of open space, but we have very few zoning laws," the governor said. "In fact, two-thirds of our counties are not zoned. I'm interested in knowing how you would begin the dialogue in a state where there has been a resistance to any kind of direction about land use."

My response, unfortunately, was less than scintillating and will not be repeated here. This is what I should have said:

There are many reasons zoning is essential in 21st-century America. One is saving money. Although people don't like government telling them what to do with their land, they do want government to provide roads, utilities, police and fire protection, and other services to make their lives safe, orderly and convenient.

Without zoning, people often build anything, anywhere, and then demand that government create the infrastructure and services necessary to make that development viable. That's an inefficient and highly expensive use of tax dollars. For example, housing subdivisions often are built with on-site sewage systems that fail within a few years. The property owners then demand that government retrofit the area with public water and sewer lines at public expense. Likewise, shopping malls are built along inadequate roads that subsequently must be widened to accommodate burgeoning traffic.

Zoning based on sound planning gives government a chance to guide the path of development and provide the necessary infrastructure in the most cost-effective manner.

Sprawling development is not the result of the free market in action. It is rather the result of big government in action. Think of what Iowa looked like a century ago, when government was a fraction of what it is today and there were virtually no land-use regulations. Everyone except farmers lived in compact cities and towns. That development pattern predominated until the 1950s, when lavish government spending for roads and other infrastructure promoted development all over the countryside.

Zoning offers property owners predictability about the future. For example, in southeastern Pennsylvania where I live, farming has been virtually wiped out during the last generation because of sprawling development. One farm near my town had been in the same family since the 1740s. Fifteen years ago, it became impossible to farm after housing developments sprung up all around it, raising property taxes and clogging the roads with traffic. The farmer had to sell that property and buy a farm in another area.

But despite substantial population growth, one of our Pennsylvania counties, Lancaster, is the most productive farming region east of the Mississippi River. More than 215,000 acres of Lancaster farmland are protected by exclusive agricultural zoning. Lancaster's Amish and Mennonite farmers - no fans of big government - are thereby assured that a housing development or corporate center is not going to pop up next door.

This zoning, in a very conservative region, is made possible by Lancaster's strong culture of stewardship and responsibility to others, which I suspect is similar to the Iowa ethic. Stewardship recognizes that all private property rights are dependent on the community. After all, we maintain a right to our land only because we can record a deed at the county courthouse, which is supported by the community. We enforce our property rights through a legal system made possible by the community. We are safe and secure in our homes because of police and fire protection organized by the community.

Just as our community makes it possible for us to enjoy our property, each community has the right - the obligation - to ensure private property is used in ways that will benefit the long-term public interest. That's what zoning is all about.

As Iowa grows, zoning will be needed to ensure it enhances, not diminishes, Iowa's quality of life.



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