Each year Community Growth Institute sends planners to the American Planning Association conference. In years past this has meant a nice get away with colleagues to someplace warm and relaxing where we could brainstorm, gain some new ideas and recharge our collective batteries. With this year's conference in Minneapolis, APA in 2009 means a early morning car ride through the rain to get to the Minneapolis Convention Center. Just not the same.

With TPB.com up and running this year, I have opted to blog live during the event to share my notes and thoughts as we go through the conference. The conference is starting today - Sunday - and ends on Wednesday of this week. I always take notes, but this provides me an opportunity to not just catalog my thoughts but to share those with others in real time. 

The prime draw for me at the conference is the sessions, so I'll split up this blog in that way.


APA in the Courts - Bettman Symposium

My first impression here is WOW! I was kind of anticipating that the conference would not be as well attended this year as prior years, with budgets tight and entire departments being eliminated. I sat at the very top of the auditorium to give a good shot.

View from the top row at the "APA in the Courts" session.

One of the speakers in this session is John Baker of Greene Espel in Minneapolis. I've listened to Baker at APA before and have had the (I hate to say) good fortune of being on the opposite side of the table in a legal matter that is actually still pending. I like him - he is a good guy, very smart, and fortunately the lawsuit I was involved with was given to a different attorney once it actually was filed. 

But before Baker's presentation, the moderator is going over the history of the Bettman Symposium and the work of APA Amicus committee. She pointed out a web site that would be great for the law-geeks amongst the planning community, that being www.planning.org/amicus, which has a list of all of the amicus briefs that have been filed on behalf of APA. 

Baker's presentation is on filing amicus briefs. A note: 

  • You have to request permission to file an amicus brief, you can't just file it. I did not know that, and I also did not know that occasionally (but rarely) an amicus-filer is allowed to make an argument in front of the court.


Rural Smart-Growth Zoning Tools

Not much time for lunch and so I got to this one a little late. The presenters seem to be talking the right language....."rural smart growth today is where urban and suburban smart growth was ten years ago". They, including the EPA representative, are indicating that there aren't tools developed for rural areas.

Yeah, they are getting it: 

  • urban smart-growth well defined, not so with rural
  • fewer financial and technical resources
  • different development types and pressures
  • urban smart growth, transit and high density is a non-starter in small towns

They presented Top Ten Quick Fixes: 

  1. Avoid the devil's density (density that is not urban and not rural),
  2. Use cluster option carefully,
  3. Rein in rural PUDs,
  4. Designate town growth areas,
  5. Develop smart annexation policies,
  6. Use fiscal impact analysis,
  7. Apply town development standards in growth areas,
  8. Protect sensitive natural areas,
  9. Regulate rural commercial,
  10. Consider PDR/TDR programs.

Excellent. These guys really get it.

Interesting thought: The speaker indicated that he felt it was very difficult, if not impossible, to create a model code for rural areas. There's a challenge worth pondering.

What is Rural Smart Growth?

  • City/Town influence areas
    • focus most growth here
    • central water/sewer
    • 4 units/acre minimum
  • Transitional town influence areas
    • large lots in clusters
    • future urbanizing standards (rights-of-way wide enough, for example)
  • True rural
    • limited urban services (eg. no paved roads, no need for a dog catcher)
    • 1 unit/40 acres minimum

There is a report that they are working off of with this presentation, but it is in draft format. I'm going to leave my card here with them and see if I can pick up a copy.

The "devil's density": 

  • Low-density rural growth not dense enough to service efficiently; fragments ag land and habitat
  • Benefits to eliminating:
    • lower gov't infrastructure costs,
    • open space preservation,
    • support town business districts,
    • reduced VMT's,
    • Increased predictability. 

They are recommending all the stuff we are working on: 

  • Allow cluster at the town's edge
  • Establish town service boundaries (means working cooperatively with counties)
  • Adopt true ag zoning (how about 1 unit per 640 acres)

Cluster subdivisions: Randall Arendt's ideas are promoted here, but there is a warning to avoid "cluster sprawl" by requiring cluster subdivisions to be at town's edge. CGI is helping many cities to do this, but what we typically find is that, politically, the idea of cluster is a bridge between the current, wide-open densities and something more sensible.

Commercial activity needs to be in towns, which will require the joint support of towns and counties/townships. Prohibit rural commercial, except for things that need to be outside of towns (feedlot, organic farm, truck stop).

I'm really happy to see that this session was packed - hardly an open seat. This is a conference that focuses primarily on urban planning issues, so it is incredible to see this level of speaker being able to speak on this topic to this many people. Way to go APA!


Small Cities' Growth and Character

We all want to live somewhere, and nobody wants to live anywhere. How do we keep "somewhere" from becoming "anywhere"?

The Orton Family Foundation Heart & Soul Community Planning Initiative was the topic of the presentation. I don't know a lot about the Orton Family Foundation, so I looked them up during the presentation. Looks like a place with their heart in the right place - here is an excerpt from their web site:

Every town has authenticity, character, spirit—its own heart and soul. One-size-fits-all development means that many towns in America are losing what makes them unique, those special qualities and distinctive characteristics that keep a place from becoming Anywhere, USA.

Land use planning in America has yet to engage a broad base of local citizens to define and shape the future of their communities. Attempts to involve people in community planning often fall short because the process doesn’t convey how citizens’ day-to-day lives and livelihoods will be affected. Meanwhile, incremental change occurs, yet its cumulative effects are hard to imagine or predict. Growth and change creep up on a community, and the consequences are born by future generations.

The Orton Family Foundation works with people in small cities and towns to counter such consequences, first, by asking citizens what they value most about their communities and, second, by placing those shared values at the center of the planning process.

It looks like they have a lot of great tools and programs, although the one I am familiar with - communityviz - has not impressed me. For people that have asked my opinion, I've labled it the "futon" of planning programs. A futon is an uncomfortable couch that transforms into an uncomfortable bed. communityviz is an awkward visioning tool that transforms into a bulky analysis tool. I have not worked with it or seen a demo for about four years, so perhaps things have changed.

I've just always struggled with programs that try to predict land use impacts because, like things like climate change, there are simply too many variables to make the analysis have any credible application. Visioning, however, is something that software lends itself to well. Maybe communityviz provides more visioning now and less pretending to analyze. I'll see shortly, I guess.

This session is also well-attended. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but it was not crowds like this. I'll need to stop making this point.

You can sign up for the Orton newsletter by clicking here. It looks like it might be worth receiving.

I took some time to explore the Orton site (presentation not the greatest right now) and found a tool that they have called Community Almanac. It is essentially a bulletin board for community members to share thoughts and stories about their community. Fabulous idea - a modern-day legacy for a small town. You can find the Community Almanac at www.communityalmanac.org

Okay - these are good guys, but this presentation is really dragging. Disappointing, because I can see here that there are a lot of good ideas and tools.


Two New Zoning Resources

This is my last session of the day, and I'm optimistic. One of the speakers, Donald Elliott, is from Clarion Associates in Denver. He has written a book that is on my shelf that I have yet to read called A Better Way to Zone. I've heard a number of speakers from Clarion Associates - somehow that orgniazation has attracted a lot of great minds. We'll see if I need to get home and read that book here in a few minutes.

The first speaker, however, is a guy named Mark White who has written a book called 21st Century Land Development Code, which is a model ordinance covering zone, subdivision and administration. White indicates that they have separated the code from the procedure, which would be really helpful in many situations we have seen. This sounds like a really good book full of helpful information, especially for places that have a need for some formal language for modifying their code with.

As I have been sitting here, I've checked out the Clarion Associates website a little bit. Now I'm seeing some familiar faces - the speaker for the second session I went to today on Rural Smart-Growth Zoning Tools was from Clarion. I'd like to meet these guys. Their website has some video that, obviously, I can't watch right now, but I'll provide a link here to come back to later.

(Side note: Battery is going dead on the portable PC so I may be forced to wrap this up before the session is over.)

Top Ten Code Drafting Mistakes  

  • Incomplete Standards
  • Fussiness (too many standards for everything)
  • Messiah Complex (feeling like every problem can and must be addressed)
  • Forgetting Urban Form (synch to local form)
  • Cumbersome Procedures
  • Inadequate Public Process
  • Sloppy Drafting
  • Cut and Paste
  • Wrong Design Template
  • Lack of Code Integration

A Better Way to Zone, according to Elliott, is about four things: 

  • We need to review why zoning never seems to give us the cities we want.
  • We need to question many assumptions behind current zoning.
  • We need to rethink predictability and flexibility.
  • We need to tailor the response to what s wrong with our code.

Starting with Euclidean zoning, we then tried to add flexibility through PUDs, Performance Zoning and Form-Based zoning. All are hybrids of Euclidean zoning. It has not worked as planned because of some failed assumptions: 

  • We thought we had to separate uses,
  • We thought that exceptions would be rare,
  • We thought the rules had to be static,
  • Tax limits pushes over-zoning for commercial (cities want commercial because there is more money with commercial),
  • Transportation often drives the land use, and
  • NIMBYism became a very powerful force. 

Elliott points out tht the idea of "predictable flexibility" is not quite as crazy as it sounds. Presents this notion of  Canadian "tolerance" bylaws that allows someone to miss the code by 5% and still be okay. You would need to meet the rule, but if you couldn't, as long as you could be 95% there, you should be treated fine. This is because the zoning code should not be looked at as a set of fixed rules but as a land management system.

To do that, 

  1. Adopt more flexible uses. Consolidate uses into broad categories (my response - amen). SmartCode suggests just 81 uses for an entire region. Washington DC is trying to shink theirs down to 15.
  2. The Mixed Use Middle. Allow the ends (industrial/ag) to stay the same, but mix all the other uses in the middle.
  3. Attainable housing. Planners need to focus on housing that meets the needs of people that live in the community, on their wages working the jobs that they work. Elliott indicates that 49% of renters pay more than 30% of their income for rent, which is a sign of major economic stress in our national economy. In the 1960's, this was 19% of renters.
  4. Mature area standards. Remove the bias towards suburban standards.
  5. Living with non-conformities. The original theory was wrong - they don't go away (again, my response - amen).
  6. Dynamic development standards - Interesting idea: Why do rules always have to be the same? Let them adjust. For example, base the height off of the neighbor's height. As they increase, you can increase. Or in an urban area, say the building height is the same as the highest building within 200 feet, plus two stories. This allows cities to evolve.
  7. De-politicize final approvals. Delegate the final approval to staff. The public should be involved in planning and the early reviews, but the technical review should be left to staff. Perhaps have a concept of "call ups", which is a staff review that would only be moved up a level if the request was made by the elected or appointed officials.
  8. Negotiate large developments, but not small ones.
  9. Use the web better (I thought of our solutions module, which is more user friendly than an ordinance).
  10. Schedule maintenance.

Note: A Better Way to Zone is published by Island Press. I'm excited to read the book now.


Finished for today - make sure and check back throughout the day tomorrow.